I was maybe 5 when I realized I was different than the majority of my friends. I had long hair, they had short. When our mommies made the kids look nice for church, I wore a dress, and they got to wear pants. Never mind the fact that I preferred to have my hair short and out of my face or that I would rather have gone naked than wear a skirt. I was different than my friends–who happened to be boys. I was different because I was a girl. But why was I different? At the time I only realized that I wasn’t the same as them because I got to wear bows; it never crossed my mind that maybe, just maybe I might be “lesser” than them because of my perceived differences.
The video above was a part of Always “#LikeAGirl” campaign. When it came out, I watched it probably ten times. Not because I was confused by its message or disturbed by its accuracy (although I was, in fact, the latter) but instead because it articulated all I had felt as an athlete that was a female. The fact of the matter is women’s sports are viewed as lesser than their male counterparts, something that this ad and also the excerpt from LaVaque-Manty’s book, The Playing Fields of Eton, entitled, “Being a Woman and Other Disabilities,” touches on.
LaVaque-Manty discusses different barriers that exist for women throughout the sports world. He claims there are two kinds of barriers: Institutional and Value-based. Institutional barriers are somewhat outdated in this day and age and basically amount to women being banned from particularly things. Since Title IX has come out though, a lot of these barriers–at least in high school and college athletics–have fallen away. But what remains still are value barriers. These barriers seek to socially “ban” women from certain things or diminish their work in their own respective fields. Examples of this would come in all shapes in sizes, from women being discouraged from joining the military to the claim that women’s basketball players just aren’t as good or as interesting to watch as their male counterparts. This idea that LaVaque-Manty presents got me thinking about my own experiences in the sports world and how there remains a lot to change.
I’ve played sports competitively since I was 5 years old. When I started out, I played on all coed teams (and not to brag or anything, but I was way better than my male counterparts). However, when I was in 2nd grade, the boys and the girls were split up. This was the first sign that athletes that were boys and athletes that were girls should be treated differently. As I got older, I saw the boys being encouraged by their coaches and fans to hit harder, and play stronger and faster. But my teammates and I were encouraged to play smart, be a good team member, and work on our stamina. The differences in these approaches contributed to different play styles, and its these play styles that are used to prove male sporting events are more entertaining and harder than female sporting events. The title of LaVaque-Manty’s chapter is upfront and in your face, but its true that being a woman is seen almost as a disability, as though you are less than a male and should not experience equality in sports, work, or life.
As an athlete that just so happens to be a female, I have consistently fought the stigma that girls sports weren’t as fun to watch. I got into countless fights with my guy friends, pointing out that we weren’t less entertaining, just that we played different styles to best utilize our physical capabilities. However, it never has done any good; I lived through countless games where the only people in the audience were our parents. Students would stream out of the gymnasium in between the boys’ basketball game ending and the girls’ game starting. I’ve been told that I’m not really an athlete and had one man say to my face that he thought it was, “cute that [girls’ sports] even kept score.” At every turn women are being told that they shouldn’t even try to live up to the male standards. Most of us can deal with these pre-determined value barriers (because we always have had to) but when it comes to actual material differences in equipment and in the safety standards of the players, simply because of their gender, that’s when we as a civilized and educated society should step up and put our foot down.
Take for example this article which explains the current legal debate surrounding the FIFA Women’s World Cup in 2016. The playing fields will be using artificial turf instead of real grass. Turf is cheaper to install and upkeep, but it also causes extremely painful injuries and can heat the field up to boiling levels. However, men have never had to use turf fields in a world cup, and the first time they will be implemented will be in the upcoming Women’s World Cup. It may not seem like a huge deal but the fact of the matter is, world class athletes are being discriminated against because of their gender. The mere fact that they are not being allowed to have the proper or equal equipment is evident of this very fact. Using turf could actually affect the results of the games, something that would never be risked in FIFA’s driving tournament, the Men’s World Cup. Women will serve as the guinea pigs for this experiment, simply because they are viewed in a less serious light.
It’s unfortunate that we live in a world that is still allowing women to be discriminated against in sports. They work just as hard as their male counterparts to achieve excellence, and generally without as much hype, drama, or positive press coverage. But the barriers to women in sports that LaVaque-Manty discusses are very real and start at a grassroots level. It starts with spectators at a girls’ basketball game staying to cheer on their team, or with the boys simply acknowledging that women are just as good at a sport as them, except maybe just in a different way. Different doesn’t always have to be bad, but when different is seen as lesser, it becomes an issue that can not be ignored.