“You _______ like a girl!” This expression, regardless of the action placed on that space, has been used time and time again—especially in the context of sports—to imply that someone is “weak”. Many people knowingly use this as a teasing and light insult. However, few realize just how serious and deep the negative impact this has in perpetuating the already existing sexist environment of the sports world.
Many girls strongly believe that sports and physical exercise are activities that would be very beneficial for them, not just physically, but also for their mental and emotional well-being. In fact, a 2022 UK study done by the GirlGuiding uncovered that over 56% of girls and young women recognize how much confidence they can build if they participate in sports. However, many choose not to engage or continue playing, particularly when they reach puberty, because of the blatant sexism, gender stereotypes, harassment and unequal opportunities they face if they do.
- A lot of girls and women in sports are subject to sexual harassment that are perpetrated by the men they work with—from their own coach, team doctor, or federation members. Most recently, Jenni Hermoso, the forward of the Spanish women’s football team, was victimized in front of a global audience by Luis Rubiales, the Spanish football federation president. Instead of Hermoso being able to celebrate their remarkable championship win during the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, her experience was tarnished by an unsolicited and unconsented kiss on the awarding stage from the federation president. Despite the criticism and outrage from Hermoso, her team, the sporting community and feminists all over, Rubiales and the Spanish federation continue to brush the issue off and are forcing Hermoso to do the same.
- Many girls also opt not to play sports because they know that there is a lack of support and decreased quality of experience for them. They do not get the same opportunities as male teams who are provided with more budget, paid higher when at the professional level, have more access to quality coaches, use better equipment and facilities, and overall have the bigger fanbase.
- There also exists the very negative assumption that girls who are highly engaged in sports, especially those with more muscular physiques, are “gay”. This leads to many girls facing even more discrimination and harassment from family and peers. Thus, hindering them from participating and enjoying their sporting experiences.
- Moreover, in context of schools and sports opportunities there, many administrations are unable to recognize that girls have additional physiological and security needs to be addressed before they are able to comfortably play sports. Some of these overlooked issues are being given the support needed for when they are on their periods, helping build their body image and confidence, and providing a judgement- and harassment-free environment within and going to sporting facilities.
With such gender barriers that exist in sports, it comes to no surprise that not all girls can fully motivate themselves to take part in physical activities. This means that a big majority of the population of girls miss out on the great benefits of sports.
- Playing sports, competing against others, and experiencing wins and losses provide people an opportunity to learn how to deal with pressure better.
- There can also be improved academic performance because engaging in physical activities helps improve one’s overall cognitive capabilities.
- Through sports, a person can meet more people with similar interests and are usually exposed to working and playing as part of a group. These experiences help build stronger skills in teamwork and cooperation.
- Most evident of all, playing sports and taking part in regular physical activities help create a healthier and more stable lifestyle. A person can be less prone to developing certain diseases, while also gaining greater self-confidence, acceptance, and satisfaction with their body image.
Given how sports can have such a positive impact on one’s life, it would be a huge loss if more and more girls are forced out of it because of so many unnecessary societal and sexist factors that exist in it. However, having such long standing traditions of gender-stereotyping and sexism, it is quite obvious that this is not something we expect to change overnight. Despite this, I believe that raising awareness on the disadvantaged and gendered realities of girls in sports is a good place to begin for overturning these traditions.
On this day that we celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child, I hope to increase the clamor on this issue that often gets overlooked. This is so that more girls will eventually have equal access and capabilities to safely engage in sports activities, whenever and wherever they want to.
As Janet S. Fink says in her article “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Embedded Nature of Sexism in Sport”, the challenge moving forward is for everyone to stop “doing gender” in sports and to shift to “undoing gender” all together. This can only be done through collective realization that leads to action from students, parents, schools and sports institutions.
It is my hope that sooner, rather than later, we will no longer hear the insult of “You _______ like a girl” being so easily thrown around. Instead, I anticipate the day when we hear more people genuinely cheer on the sports field, “You go, girl!”