I’ve been thinking a great deal about the topics of girls, sports and self-esteem and how these things intersect. I’m interested in exploring how parents can best support girls in sport and the upside of sport: increased self-esteem, healthier body image, preventing depression and anxiety. But I also want to challenge the downside and talk about what parents should do when sports may be contributing to unhealthy body image or increasing risk for an eating disorder. Too much to say in one post – so this is going to be a series!
I thought I would start with a lengthy and deeply personal disclaimer:
I have never actually played on a sports team outside of gym class in elementary school. In fact I grew up pretty much believing that there were people who were built to do sports and people who weren’t. Mostly this was a split down gender lines but even among my girlhood friends there were a few that just seemed to be meant to run around a track or spike a volleyball over a net.
This was the 70’s and happily sport has become much more accessible to girls in the decades since. However this was not just an accessibility issue in terms of funding for girls sports teams or the fact that I lived in a rural part of the country with fewer options. It was also about issues like exclusion and body image. You’ve all heard the story from women before me… I was the kid picked last for every team even in gym class. I never seemed to have that kinesthetic learning link between brain and limb that seemed so natural for other kids and I was more than a little afraid of getting a volleyball or baseball in the face.
Gym class at my elementary school involved rotating through the same activities year after year. In winter we played volleyball, basketball and did gymnastics. In spring we played soccer and baseball and had a track meet. Most of those classes were dedicated to lining up, choosing our teams and heading out to play. I don’t recall being taught skills or having the sport broken down to small manageable parts in order to understand it. There was never a time that our gym teacher, Mr. M., separated the athletes from those of us that were struggling to understand the sport and took us off to do some teaching and learning. He clearly favored the kids who already knew what they were doing. In retrospect I realize he was re-living his own boyish athletic fantasies through how he teamed up with the cool talented kids and bullied the rest of us. I learned to stay out of the way and to pretend I didn't care.
I wasn’t a sedentary child. I had to cross a huge field to get to my best friend’s house and I happily ran the whole way as often as I was allowed to. We had a back yard pool and I swam like a fish from the day the cover came off in spring until the day it went back on in late fall. I ran around with my dog, rode a bike, pulled weeds & picked beans in the garden, skated on a pond and took every chance I had to camp and paddle a canoe. I even got pretty good at shooting baskets because we had a hoop beside the garage; I had good aim and a competitive younger brother which led to endless games of “21”.
However I learned early on that the world was divided into those who could play sports and those who could not. Gym classes were almost always a source of shame and something just to be tolerated. There was an exception. In sixth grade, I was getting taller and stronger and suddenly developed an interest in basketball. Shooting hoops had paid off. I saw myself as having potential. I even dreamed of going out for the girls basketball team the following year although I was almost embarrassed to think it could be possible.
And then came the grade six “basketball-a-thon”… 24 hours of hanging out at school, playing basketball with intermittent sleep and meal breaks… all to raise money for our class trip to Niagara Falls. I had a blast and for the first time in my life I successfully took the ball away from another girl. Except instead of being allowed to feel pride that I had finally figured out how this game worked, I was humiliated by Mr. M. He yelled at me for being too aggressive and not giving the other girl a chance with the ball. My first proud sporty moment was quickly forgotten. Just to seal the deal… I was given some feedback that guaranteed I wouldn’t take another chance like that again. I was at a birthday party and birthday girl’s dad tried to remember where we had met. I mentioned seeing him at the basketball-a-thon. He responded: “Oh I do remember you. I saw you play. You weren’t very good.” It is 34 years later and I still feel the sting of that remark. Those were the words and the voice that replayed in my brain for years whenever I even considered joining in a spontaneous game of any kind.
Physical Education was only an elective course when I entered my Ontario high school in 1979. I never signed up. As my high school years progressed I was shocked to find out that that the girls went sailing and took dance lessons – that it was not all volleyball and soccer. Regardless, I made it through four years of high school without a single Phys Ed class and never once had to risk being part of a team or a sport of any kind. My body image was also dangerously poor during these years. Body image is as much about how one feels in their body as how they feel about their appearance. I can’t help but wonder if I had learned some skills, learned to feel confidence and take pleasure in what my body could do, if I would have been less preoccupied with how I looked.
Earlier in my career when I was more involved in eating disorder prevention work and I delivered body image workshops, I advocated for different levels of Phys Ed class. If kids can do different levels of math based on their future career plans, why are there not Phys Ed classes for athletes and separate ones for kids who just need to learn basic skills, build endurance, take a few safe risks and learn to love moving their bodies? I also believe that kids who aren’t the natural athletes and don’t play on teams should be learning movement that can stay with them for a lifetime… activities like yoga, walking, or belly dance. I was well in to my adult life before I discovered that all the things I loved to do most - canoeing, camping, and swimming – counted as sport but had just never been presented to me that way.
So back to my disclaimer… I was the girl who didn’t play sports. I stopped trying because I didn’t want to be shamed again. I had been told clearly… I wasn’t any good. It never occurred to me that being “good” wasn’t the only reason to play. I set aside the fact that I had been having fun, getting stronger, learning something new and enjoying the teamwork. So my disclaimer is that I know first hand that sports can be a source of shame, a source of exclusion and confusion. I really know nothing about what it is to be a girl who plays sports – but I know everything about how being excluded from sports can negatively impact self-esteem and body image.
Several studies have shown that a critical transition time for both boys and girls is the year they move from grade school to junior high or middle school. However, the same studies show that girl’s self-esteem declines three times as often as it does for boys during these transition years. In Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, psychologist Mary Piper says that in early adolescence, "girls' lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and inclined to take risks" and they lose, "their assertive, energetic and 'tomboyish' personalities" as they, "become more deferential, self-critical and depressed". It is not surprising then that a study by the Women’s Sports Foundation (1998) showed that during those same years, girls drop out of sports six times more often than boys do.
Future posts in this series will focus on the evidence of why sport is good for girls and how we can keep them connected to their bodies in adolescence.