One word can make all the difference. The ‘F’ word used by the Sports Minister, Helen Grant yesterday certainly caused a storm into what was otherwise a good news story about trying to attract more women, and particularly girls into sport.
The result of the ‘F’ word scored somewhere on the scale between ‘unfortunate’ and ‘shocking’. The offending ‘F’ word of course being “feminine”
Out of context, it could be seen as shocking but Ms Grant was responding specifically to a question about trying to engage image conscious girls into sport. It’s an important question. Statistics show that the drop off starts with girls from the age of 8 years which accelerates in the teenage years.
“You don’t have to feel unfeminine. Ms Grant, replies “There are some wonderful sports which you can do and perform to a very high level and I think those participating look absolutely radiant and very feminine such as ballet, gymnastics, cheerleading and even roller-skating.”
Of course we would love our girls to embrace their own bodies and to be free to participate in sport without the worries of what others might think which I have blogged on before. This requires long term work beyond the remit of sport alone, but we also need short term ideas.
Image is one reason why girls and women may be put off sport once they reach adolescence but I suspect the other reason, that is true for boys as well as girls, is competitiveness. There are classic sports that offer far more than improved fitness: team work, self confidence, respect, discipline, life skills etc. The opportunities they offer for competition, travel, recognition and reward are great. Success breads success and as well as being profitable for the investment of sport itself they can, in turn, become sport ambassadors of the future. Rebecca Addlington and Jessica Ennis are two of the obvious examples
However, competitive sports aren’t for everyone. Whether the motivation is self improvement, healthy lifestyle, fun or engaging in a social activity there are plenty of other sports that offer a non-competitive alternative. Lets not loose sight that whatever ‘sport’ people choose it needs to be their choice! Therefore, Ms Grant is right in offering a diverse range of sports to entice wider participation. Clearly, this also needs to be backed up with funding and resources.
We need to clear of our purpose for sport. We talk of ‘Sport for all’ as though it has common purpose. For some it’s about winning, medals, trophies, recognition and for others it’s simply a matter of health and fitness. Both are important and share common ground but they are also poles apart. The way we subsequently promote these should also be different.
We often come unstuck when we try to discuss ‘sport’ in such sweeping terms and we are left fumbling around for categories that are unhelpful. Much work has been poured into making sport accessible for all and to try to break down gender based stereotypes. Classifying sports into ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ can do little to help either side; whether it’s engaging more boys into dance and ballet or girls into hockey or rugby.
Maybe we should be promoting ‘Sport’ and ‘Exercise’ separately rather than under one umbrella term? For many, even the mention of ‘sport’ is a turn off with all the baggage that it brings.
However, I fell what was far more damaging than the use of the word ‘feminine’ was the tone of reporting across the media outlets on these differences. Whether they were labeling them ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’; ‘competitive’ or ‘no-competitive’ the divisions were clear. The emphasis was to push the ‘competitive’ sports but if all else fails maybe they could at least do Zumba!
As a Zumba addict (who also loves running and traditional sports) it undervalues all the hours of commitment, sweat and effort that has gone into my favoured ‘sport’ of choice. We ought to give girls a choice, but a choice that fits and celebrates their own interests and isn’t seen as second rate.
If we want to encourage young girls to participate more in exercise then Zumba must be a great choice. After taking my 17 year old niece to one of the classes she commented that her friends would love it as “it’s not like sport, but more like clubbing”. We should cheer and encourage such girls on in their chosen form of exercise and classes such as Zumba shouldn’t be used in disparaging terms from those that would prefer a more pure or elite form of exercise.
If we can give girls what they want, maybe we’re at least in the starting blocks for addressing the 1.8 million shortfall between the genders when it comes to active sport participation.
We need to watch our language. As we’ve seen, it’s of great consequence but lets not throw the message out with the messenger!