Sport minister, Helen Grant MP, has just given an interview to The Telegraph newspaper stating that women should be given more opportunities to participate in feminine sports, such as cheerleading. The article goes on to quote that it enables “those participating [to] look absolutely radiant and very feminine”. And the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation have released a statement agreeing with her.
The problem is however, that it perpetuates gender stereotypes that suggest female = feminine and male = masculine. And it is these stereotypes that have held women in sport back for so long and led to years of people (mainly men) suggesting that sport is bad for women. Indeed, it is only in the last couple of weeks that we saw comments made by Russia’s ski jumping coach, Alexander Arefyev, who said that women should not be participating in ski-jump because “Women have another purpose – to have children, to do housework, to create hearth and home.”
So however well intentioned Ms Grant’s comments were – and I do not disagree with the fact that everyone (male and female) should have an opportunity to participate in a range of sports and exercise activities – unfortunately they were completely misguided. The headlines that have been drawn focus upon the notion that women and girls should (as a moral imperative) be emphasising their femininity through participation in particular ‘feminine’ sports.
What we really need to be doing (and this has been a focus in Parliament recently) is trying to dispel the gender stereotypes that begin at birth and are enforced throughout childhood. We need to stop ourselves saying to girls in particular ‘that’s not for girls’ or ‘that’s not very ladylike’ in the way that we expect them to behave where we have no issue with ‘boys being boys’ and playing roughly or getting muddy. This is what will help to change attitudes for girls participating in sport and exercise, so that when they get to secondary school they don’t feel that sports which leave them hot and sweaty aren’t for them.
Yes there should be a range of activities for both girls and boys that enable them to enjoy physical activity, but focusing upon ‘femininity’ just seeks to preserve the same old stereotypes.