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I can’t tonight, I’m washing my hair

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When we went to an open day at our daughter’s new school, the teacher giving us the tour told us what after school clubs were available. Girls’ football was one of them, and obviously we *had* to ask, why isn’t it a mixed club? The teacher said, it’s because the girls feel more confident playing this way. And who can blame them? As Professor Carrie Petcher said to one of us recently (feminist name drop, boom!), “the boys won’t pass to the girls”. I guess it’s hard to see yourself as a star striker when half your team are undermining your efforts.
In the warm glow of the Olympic and Paralymic success story, it’s easy to imagine that sport is now on the top of every child’s hobby list. But there are ongoing sexist issues that explain this awful statistic:

-Just 12% of 14 year old girls in the UK are reaching the recommended levels of physical activity – half the number of boys at the same age

Shocking stuff. The excellent piece of research that brings us this awful statistic uncovered a wealth of interesting information. It found, for example, that boys and girls both agree that there are more opportunities for boys to do sport than girls, and also that girls’ experience of sport at school can really put them off it. But here’s when it really gets down to the nitty gritty:

-Half of the girls surveyed (48%) say that getting sweaty is “not feminine.”

-Nearly a third of boys think that girls who are sporty are not very feminine.

Aha! Whoop whoop, it’s da sound of da gender-police.

Sport is not feminine, where on earth would anyone get such an idea?? Oh, er, just everywhere. When Gemma Gibbons won GB’s first judo medal in 12 years, did she get the admiration of every man, woman and child in the country. No, she got this poisonous blog in the telegraph asking if “women fighting each other violently is a perfectly wholesome spectator sport?”. Now the Telegraph has clearly set itself on a new economic strategy along the lines of the DailyMail-online-trolling-to-get-page-views, but the way these papers do that is by writing something that appeals to people’s basest prejudices and that they’d like to have confirmed. GIRLS, FIGHTING, TOGETHER?! IT’S THE END OF DAYS! No, thimble-brain, it’s sport. Get a grip.

Later, the presenter on the BBC also policed the femininity of the Judo medalist when she revealed she hadn’t washed her hair that day. Shocked, he was. Oh piss-off, say we. But that’s the problem summed up in one small exchange on television. A woman can win an Olympic medal, the pinnacle of her career, and a man can take the time to be appalled that she didn’t groom her hair to his expectations. This tells girls that maintaining their appearance trumps the achievements of physical activity. And that’s very much what this report found. Being sporty made a boy one of the most popular among his peers. I think you can guess that the same was not true for girls.

Here’s another finding:

-Boys were commonly cited by girls of all ages as a reason for why sport and physical activity is not perceived to be fun, particularly in relation to school PE lessons. Boys’ negative attitudes about girls’ abilities in sport and physical activity were also perceived to be a problem.

The attitudes of the other half of the population are a big factor in why girls shun sport.

So remember our policy, a bit of a moan and then some ideas for solutions. Well this ain’t as as straight forward as a list of books with girls in. But there really are things you can do.

The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, who compiled that research has been trying to make us all wake up to the growing problem of inactivity in girls. Their #gogirl campaign strap line, “Our vision is a society which encourages, enables and celebrates active women and girls”. Well yes that’s nice, how do we do that? Well guess what, parents? To add to the multitude of responsibilities that are on your shoulders, you are a big influence here. Taking children to watch or participate in sport is vital. Not just talking about it, going out and doing it. You’re also a role model for them in terms of whether you are participating in sport.

The marvellous Carrie Dunn, who writes for Bea as well, is doing a PhD on this very subject. Her feeling is that access to watch sport needs to be the starting focus. Girls are less likely to be taken to sport than boys. Parents are equally likely to fall into the trap of policing their daughter’s femininity by being less encouraging about sport for girls. Carrie’s research has found that if girls are encouraged to think that they are allowed to watch whatever sport they want, then they will. Simples, eh? If it’s presented to them as a gendered choice, i.e only for their brothers, then they’re likely to see sport as gendered for the rest of their lives.

We’ve been unbelievably lucky to have the Olympics on our doorstep at a time when our daughter is just old enough to be able to enjoy and understand how exciting sport can be to watch. She saw table tennis, basketball, football, athletics and the modern pentathlon, with disabled and able-bodied athletes competing. We hope it’s something that will stay with her for the rest of her life. But will it make her more likely to take part in sport?

Recently Carrie wrote here on Bea that despite growing up with great role models like Sally Gunell and Liz McColgan, she still hated sport at school. It’s true sports role models don’t necessarily have the effect of changing our physical behaviour. But here’s where we hope that their power to influence can work in other ways.

Athletes like Zoe Smith, Nicola Adams, Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Laura Robson, are smart, witty, confident and incredibly good at standing up to a world that has ridiculous expectations of them because they are women. Zoe smith wrote the most fantastic blog post in response to tweets crticising her appearance as ‘manly’. She wrote,

what makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive?….We, as any women with an ounce of self-confidence would, prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren’t weak and feeble.”

So though our girls may not look at these young women and be galvanised to become champion pole vaulters, what I hope they will take on board is seeing high profile women who are refusing to suffer under the pressure of our appearance driven culture, because that’s a big part of what is holding girls back. Young role models like these have been pretty lacking. As adults, we find them incredibly inspiring.

Raising the profile of women’s sport can only help to dispel prejudices about ability and importance. So get signing this petition asking the Government to discuss the state of women’s sport in the House of Commons and to consider making broadcasters obligated to show women’s sport.
But the most important point in the area of raising the profile, audiences and television coverage of women’s sport? Take your sons to watch it, because it’s their attitudes that are part of this problem.

About babygenderdiary

A mother and father, blogging and tweeting about our 4 year old girl and our 1 year old boy and how people treat them differently. Now with extra added positive ideas on how to change the world in small ways.

7 comments on “I can’t tonight, I’m washing my hair

  1. bodhimoments
    September 14, 2012

    Thought Provoking, indeed! I am not particularly sporty, and I love being feminine, But I still think, girls should be encouraged to be healthy, and playing sport with enthusiasm, is healthy. Actually I think a sporty girl is feminine. but what would I know, I am a woman, not a man, who of course thinks he has the last word in femininity.

  2. cariadmartin
    September 14, 2012

    Love this post. It’s brilliant. I don’t get why system makes this such an issue, it really needn’t be.

    In school, girls & young women hate PE classes, yet literally thousands of women are taking fitness classes at gyms across the country on a daily basis. So it’s pretty easy to conclude that women are willing and able to participate.

    I think with a combination of gym-style classes (Zumba, Boxercise, etc) and a VARIED program of sports (ball sports and athletics, sure, but also martial arts, roller derby, gymnastics, cheerleadering, dance, golf, swimming…) this problem could be resolved as quick as you can say “bleep test in the pissing down rain in front of a bunch of judgmental boys in an ill-fitting gym skirt”.

    I definitely think better coverage of women’s sports on TV would help. I’m a Rainbows / Brownie leader and it’s shocking that the teeny handful of girls that do take sports out of school can’t name a single female sports star in their field.

  3. Tracy
    September 14, 2012

    Very interesting. I hated games lessons at school partly due to these reasons. But the killer was that I’m just not competitive enough to enjoy sports, and the fact that I wasn’t very good at most of them just made it embarrassing. Now that school is a distant memory, I have finally learned to enjoy non competitive exercise – I wish I had had that option at school.

  4. suzieblue85
    September 14, 2012

    Really interesting – as an adult I take way more interest in fitness than I did as a teenager, purely down to my high school experience of sport. We had 2 x 50-min classes per week – this time limit including getting changed in communal areas and getting to and from classes – to participate in gender-mixed sport. In their mid-teens, girls have physically developed more than boys and are far more self-conscious, but the boys are developing strength-wise, so girls naturally feel uncomfortable. It’s maybe different now than when I was a pupil, but a bit more gender sensitivity from schools in arranging PE classes might help.

  5. babygenderdiary
    September 14, 2012

    Thanks for all your comments, they’re really interesting as they really reflect what’s in the WSFF report. It’s well worth a click through to the full report as there are many more interesting gems in it.
    But specifically the fact girls don’t want to get fit in a competitive way is a major part of the problem. Cariad is totally right that simple changes could make a big difference to girls’ participation in school.

  6. zouarvehat
    September 15, 2012

    I was going to argue some of your points until i came across your closing statements – which I couldn’t agree with more. It is about more than sport, much more.

  7. Carrie
    September 17, 2012

    Completely agree with these comments. The competitive thing is something I think is key (not necessarily just for girls) – if you’re not that good at sports, you’re not going to make the school team or whatever, and you feel like your ineptitude is shown up in comparison to your classmates who are good.

    When I wrote my piece during the Olympics I mentioned a scheme when I was at middle school (1989-1993) where you tried out all the different athletics events, but you kept your very own record of your progress. Basically you were competing against yourself and you could see that you DID improve and for me at least it pushed me to do better. I might not be able to beat the sporty girls, but I can beat the me of a fortnight ago.

    And yes, stuff like Boxercise or Zumba or Pilates even, all would be great additions and encourage improvement of all-round fitness. However, the latter two certainly would need extra training for teachers to deliver it properly, and doubt any school would be able to fund.

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This entry was posted on September 13, 2012 by in Bea Adventurous, Bea Current, Bea Family, Bea Feminist, Bea Sporty.
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