Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
I started playing football when I was 5 years old. Back then, I was constantly running around in football kits. Until the age of 11 my gender had little to no influence on my life. I behaved no differently knowing that I was a girl, and all my best friends happened to be boys.
I was captain of most of the sports teams, and was the only girl and captain of my school’s football team. Yet, once I turned 11, I was constantly questioned by kids and adults alike: “do you want to be a boy?” and “why do you act like a boy?”. I couldn’t understand why playing football rather than choosing gymnastics or dance, was at odds with this transition to “womanhood”.
Sport was the terms in which I thought about myself. It gave me a position amongst my peers for the early part of my life, especially football. When I was no longer allowed to continue with my local “boys” team, I played casually with a group of other girls as there were no established girls’ leagues in my area. At 13, I contacted Lincoln Ladies Football Club and they invited me to try out. Before long, I was playing football for two different teams with girls 3 or 4 years older than me. I felt a sense of purpose and drive which is exactly what I needed at that age. Unfortunately, playing football 5-6 times a week seriously hampered my social life – especially since it was a 40-minute drive there and back. Also, playing football didn’t seem to fit in with a “successful” social life of a young girl. There was no option of playing casually in my area, so it was 5 times a week or nothing – and I gave up playing.
I named this article sexuality in sport rather than “gender and sport” because it’s much deeper than just the conflict of how sport interacts with the performance of gender. Sport is most crucially disregarded in the part of a girl’s life when she enters puberty, as if competitive sport isn’t cohesive with womanhood. Dividing girls and boys at 10 years old seems counterproductive for the development of equality between the sexes, especially in aiding respectful interactions between genders – something which sport is crucial in reinforcing. In 2016, the FA announced that under 10’s and under 12’s girls teams would now play their male equivalents in leagues. This means that girls teams in rural areas can now utilise the leagues already in existence, which in turn will encourage an increased number of female participants as the supporting infrastructure is available.
A key factor behind lack of female involvement in sport compared to males is arguably due to the attitude to women’s sport in school. Sport England’s biannual Active People Survey showed in October 2016 that 41.4% of boys aged 14+ participated in sport (intense exercise) once a week, compared to 32.5% of girls – a participation gap of 1,663,300. Considering that the government-recommended level of exercise for 5-18 year olds is a minimum of 60 minutes a day of moderate exercise, and three days a week of intense exercise, clearly the level of activity in schools hasn’t been adequate and girls are mostly suffering from this. This raises the issue of the attitude towards physical education in schools, and along with this the lack of education about nutrition and other health skills that can greatly improve lives. However, the most troubling decrease comes around 13-14 years old when a girl is most pressured to conform to this idea of “womanhood”.
Regular exercise has been proven to improve educational qualifications, professional progression and economic development. The lack of representation of women’s sports in the media – it only made up 7% of all sports media coverage in the UK according to an assessment in 2014 – shows the lack of longevity in the collective consciousness that women’s sport has in society. There isn’t the same propagation of female sports role models as there are male, which impacts how we think of sport. This has changed more recently, with male athletes such as Andy Murray calling out the media misrepresentations of sports making male-centric statements, and contributing to bringing female athletes to greater attention. The Lionesses’ excellent performance in 2015 in getting to the World Cup semi-finals in Canada has been called a “turning point” in the media representation of women’s sports. Viewing figures on the BBC peaked at 2.6 million, and since then recognition of the international performances of the Lionesses has helped raise the profile for women’s sport in the UK.
Fitness “influencers” are also impacting the social consciousness of what it means to be a woman. The new appreciation of muscular physiques is a great start for changing this idea of the “capability” of women. These informal forms of media are also being supported by organisations such as Women in Football. They highlight the successes of players and the increasing inclusion of women in footballing institutions over multimedia platforms, in collaboration with organisations that had previously only focussed on men’s football.
Time will tell how well the media cover England’s hosting of the European Championships in 2021, and whether this trend of increased representation continues. I can only hope that this further publication of women’s success in sport over the upcoming years will combat the pressure put on young girls to choose “womanhood” over sport – causing a change across all sectors of women’s lives.