Women And Girls Are Missing Out On Sport – Now We Know Why

Jessica Bellamy is a Melbourne-based writer interested in theatre, dogs, feminism, and pop culture.

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My name is Jessica and I am a klutz. A klutz is one of those Yiddish words with no simple English equivalent. A klutz is clumsy, awkward and accident-prone. A klutz will not only slip on a banana skin, but they will also accidentally end up choking on the banana skin while splitting the back of their pants open and butt-dialling their boss.

In the last month, I have injured myself by putting on a seatbelt, getting on a stationary bike, tripping over a box of saucepans, and walking into a bed. These are all funny injuries, and make good dinner party stories when the immediate swelling goes down.

I have always been clumsy. Whether it was being smacked in the face with footballs in school or falling up the stairs in my twenties, I have found that balance and agility are not my strong point. I have also found a little more information about what might be at play here.

Dr Margarita Tsiros, a researcher and physiotherapist from UniSA’s Alliance for Research in Exercise, Nutrition and Activity, has focused much of her research on girls’ participation in sport. Her studies have shown differences in balance, stability and ball skills between boys and girls. These apparent differences in skills, compounded by fear of failure, lead to a large proportion of young women avoiding physical exercise into their teens and adult years, with resulting health issues.

The problem with an actual or perceived lack of skill in these early years is the way that it sets you up for the future. You might have spent Primary School being picked last for every P.E. team because of your gender, your size, or your popularity. You might have had access needs that were not catered for in your school or club environment. You might have had the sort of P.E. teacher who focused all of their attention on the naturally gifted athletes in your grade, and neglected to build skills in the students without natural affinity. You might have grown up in a culture that prized intellectual development far beyond physical ability, and neglected to see the ways in which physical and intellectual health could support one another.

A few of these factors applied to me. There was the short-sightedness I failed to notice until late primary school, which probably accounted for the footballs smacking me in the face. There was my round well-fed tummy signalling to my classmates that I didn’t do jazz dance or athletics after school, and would probably be a real drawback as a teammate. There was also cultural precedent within my community: I could count the number of famous Jewish sports stars on one hand, if I weren’t too busy using that hand to write applications to Gifted and Talented Camp (which, incidentally, had an English, Science and Maths stream, but not one for P.E.)

As I grew older, I participated in the sorts of sports I thought were accessible to people like me. I went on long walks, I did clinical pilates, and I did the bare minimum lifting some weights when I wanted to have Madonna Arms at an opening night. I figured these were the sorts of sports that you couldn’t mess up too deeply. (Though you could still get dive-bombed by magpies in the park, or fart while saluting the sun). I like the sorts of sports where you’re not watched, and if you are adjusted or corrected, it’s done by a kind person with a soft voice who overshares about their personal life.

In the last six months, however, some of my circumstances have changed. I’ve become a cyclist, not so much for sport than to ease the financial pressure of going back to university. I’ve learnt a few things since embarking on this adventure. Firstly, the gender disparity in cycling communities. Cycling Victoria has a dedicated “women’s cycling” page of their website which recognises that “traditionally cycling clubs have been dominated by males”, and they have partnered with a number of clubs to form strategies to rectify the disparity.

I’ve also become aware of the impediments towards participation for many female cyclists. These include safety issues of riding alone and a lack of bike paths, but also the physical demands on appearance that might prevent cycling into work. Many workplaces are designating “end of trip” facilities, which offer showers and ironing boards, but you have to work in a well-resourced environment to access these sorts of facilities.

Probably the most dramatic realisation I’ve had as a cyclist is realising that learning is not a solely intellectual pursuit. Just as we learn to read, write and debate, we also learn to check our peripherals, to hold our balance when indicating, to lean into a turn, to lower our gears when slowing down at the lights, to ring a bell when passing, and to climb a hill without swearing at your partner. Until I became a cyclist, I didn’t quite grasp the fact that sports required deep learning in every muscle of your body. I don’t realise that even if I don’t have natural talent, I can still learn. I never knew that is was OK to start out bad at a sport, because I can make myself better. Many people learn this concept as children, but many people give up too early to ever learn it. This misperception about innate physical skill stops some of us from pursuing physical activity for the rest of our lives.

So, what’s to be done? The Federal Government has shown some initiative in the area by copying a popular Sports England promotion that specifically addresses gender imbalance in sports.

Girls Make Your Move is an online story platform featuring examples of girls who undertake sporting activities without fear of embarrassment, sweatiness or mistakes. The program says, “It’s time to get active. It’s not about ability, and it’s not about perfection – it’s about having more energy and feeling better.” There is a video featuring a swathe of girls swimming, surfing, playing soccer or at dance class, with phrases like “the couch can wait” and “snapchat THIS” flashing up against a Jessie J soundtrack.

I like this initiative, and yet I am also troubled by a culture that has embedded fear of failure so deeply into young women that we require international initiatives to remind us that it’s OK to be a bit shit. When the campaign tells us, “it’s not about perfection”, we are led to consider the ways in which we’ve previously fed impossible ideals of said perfection.

The perfect girl. The perfect woman. Her hair is neat. Her makeup never runs. She doesn’t have sweat marks. She spends half an hour blow-drying her helmet hair when she gets to work. She’d never fart in a yoga class.

We have a lot of work still to do, and a lot of cultural conditioning to unpack, but I’m glad that something foundational is being done. In the meantime: back on your bike.

Take some action

Inspiring, energising and empowering young women to be more active.

  Girls make your move