Today, females, both women and girls are told that they can achieve and do anything that they set their minds too. So why in 2014 are girls consistently falling short of meeting expectations when it comes to physical activity? Girls see no boundaries when it comes to the types of sports that they can participate in; soccer, football, or lacrosse, girls can do it. What is stopping today’s young women from reaching physical activity goals when in all other areas of life they are surpassing expectations?
Let’s start with some background on children and physical activity in Canada. Each year Active Healthy Kids Canada publishes a report on physical activity for Children and Youth. Not to pick on girls only, but consistently in all areas that were a focus of this report, both boys and girls are falling short of meeting the guidelines for physical activity. Girls just happen to be even further away from meeting these expectations than boys of the same age. The guidelines published in the 2013 report, have a recommended accumulation of 60 minutes of physical activity daily. Accumulated physical activity is activity that can be done throughout the day which in turns makes it that much more achievable. In 2013, 9% of boys met the guidelines for physical activity while only 4% of girls met the established guidelines.
Below is a video put out by Dove’s Self Esteem Fund acknowledging the challenges faced by girls especially as they make the transition from childhood to adolescence to remain in sport and active.
The first reason I think girls aren’t meeting physical activity guidelines involves the socialization of young girls where they are expected to behave in a certain way and dangerous sports are considered “not ladylike”. While a number of girls participate in these dangerous sports, there are additional precautions in place to protect women; for example girls’ hockey does not have hitting. The outdated misconception is that women are fragile and dangerous sports should be modified for protection. Russell (2011) approaches children and dangerous sports from a gender neutral position where he believes that children are being “risk sanitized” and missing out on a crucial part of childhood. He also talks about the uncommon sense view where it is not necessary to be exposed varying levels of risk in sport or to the amount of risk present in many popular sports to achieve the good (physical activity). Furthermore, cultural acceptance is different from moral obligations to protect children and help them grow into healthy adults. Girls participate in some very dangerous sports like cheerleading and gymnastics but parents may be viewing their moral obligation to protect and nurture their daughters as a way of preventing them from engaging in these sports. These girls then miss out on physical activity because the risk outweighs the benefit for becoming healthy adults. This begs the question, if parents are really protecting their girls or contributing to an unhealthy life and the failing grade on the Active Healthy Kids Canada Report. Preventing girls from playing (dangerous) sport could potentially be robbing them of the opportunities to be active and contribute to many worse health conditions in the future.
Also, there is the perception in place that girls should display characteristics that the media considers feminine. Very rarely in media do you see a muscular female athlete with low bodyweight portrayed as being glamorous. Karkazis et al (2012) describe a cultural tension between athleticism and femininity that supports long hair, painted nails and emphasized femininity. Girls need to have positive female role models such as Christine Sinclair who they can look up to for their achievements. In my opinion, these female athletes should be looked up to more than celebrities who do not portray what women actually look like. Girls may be deferred from engaging in physical activity because the anxiety present with being stigmatized as looking “butch”. A story I am sure most people think of when it comes to female athletes is Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was forced to submit to sex testing in order to remain in the sport. Caster was singled out because as Karkazis said femininity with body femaleness links to normalcy in gender and sex with heterosexuality. This should not be the first story that is thought of for female athletes. Providing young girls with a positive image of what being a female athlete is all about is crucial to participation.
How can we provide young women the opportunity to meet 60 minutes a day of physical activity? During the transition from childhood to adolescence, it is particularly important. The Girls Action Foundation of Canada focuses on the empowerment of girls. Girls avoid physical activity when they feel unskilled, self-conscious and have a lack of interest. By providing opportunities where girls have a say in what type of physical activity they participate in builds ownership over that activity. Also, by making behaviours that are sedentary typically like talking on the phone or texting into physical activity like an app that track steps during a walk, girls may be encouraged to become active. Lastly, during the trying time of adolescence, female-only opportunities are crucial to maintain interest.
Efforts need to be made by both parents and the school community to encourage and promote health in young girls so that they may grow up to be healthy adults. It begins with the media portraying female athletes in a better light so that these girls have healthy role models to look up to. Lastly, girls should be encouraged to participate in different sports with varying levels of danger (risk) as their parents concern regarding these (dangerous) sports is is often based on misinformation and exaggerated. By achieving this, young Canadian females can expect to get a passing grade on the next Health Active Kids Canada report card.
Active Healthy Kids Canada. (2013). Are we Driving our Kids to Unhealthy Habits. Retrieved from http://www.activehealthykids.ca/2013ReportCard/en/
Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity. (2013). Girls, Physical Activity and Culture. Retrieved from http://girlsactionfoundation.ca/files/physical_activity_1.pdf
Karkazis, K., Jordan-Young, R., Davis, G., & Camporesi, S. (2012). Out of Bounds? A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes. The American Journal of Bioethics, 3-16
Russell, J. (2012). Children and Dangerous Sport and Recreation. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, 176-193.