Being exposed to stereotypes about women in sport has given me a complicated relationship with both sport and my own body.
If you are a woman, you have most likely been subjected to stereotypes when participating in sports. I cannot remember how many times I have heard sentiments like women being “weak”, “slow”, “clumsy”, or less capable than men at sport — in school, in the media, and elsewhere.
Personally, I recognise that I was relatively fortunate when I was young. As a tall and stubborn gymnast, I was rarely told to my face that I was less capable at sport than the boys — and if I had been told so I would probably have raised an eyebrow and asked “really?”. I knew that I was strong and fast and that anyone who said otherwise was wrong — which I gladly proved.
But that was just the crux — I constantly felt that I needed to prove my worth and that I was at least as good as the guys. I saw how the female leaders at the athletics summer camps I went to were never coveted for the end-of-the-day relay races like the male leaders were —some children even complained about having a female leader on their team instead of a male one. I thought to myself that I never wanted to be seen as a liability on a team.
Media also did not help, in particular the sci-fi or fantasy books and shows I consumed. There, the female characters were either supernaturally talented fighters, were trained in a few weeks by a man who was much better than them — usually as a result of lifelong training — or they were constantly being saved, again by a male character. The message was clear: it was not realistic for women to be good at anything physical, like sport, in real life.
However, I was a gymnast until my early teens — a female dominated sport, at least in my home country — and then I transitioned into race walking which is a niche sport that is also very technical. I trained alone or mostly with women, and worked diligently at my technique so that I was often praised for it. I ended up replacing race walking with long-distance running, where I also mostly trained alone. I did not have much occasion to compare myself to others and could settle into my own strengths. So, my desire to prove myself and to prove others wrong rarely reared its head — but it always chased me all the same.
I was affected in other ways too, which were not that clear to me at the time. In my early teens, I developed an eating disorder, which coincided with me quitting gymnastics. The eating disorder was caused by many complex factors, but it was partly a reaction to losing the strength and speed from gymnastics which had given me an edge — an edge that I had not realised was vital to my confidence in my body. The eating disorder became a twisted way of taking ownership over my body, and showing myself that society could not decide what my body was capable of doing or not.
I have since recovered from the eating disorder, but the desire to prove myself remains.
I recently started playing a team sport, just to see what it was like. I had never really played team sports before, so I knew I would struggle a bit. However, I thought I had made peace with the fact that my strengths are more suited to long-distance sports, so that I could still have a bit of fun with a new sport.
It was not that simple.
I struggled to learn the tactics of the game, and I felt slow and clumsy when sprinting on the field. Every session became a battle against my own need to prove myself, to show that I did not fulfil the stereotypes. This was exacerbated when I overheard a coach tell one of the male players that he should throw softer to us girls because we were slower than the guys. Had I not found a women’s team that was welcoming and accepting instead, I would probably have quit.
Stereotypes about women in sport affect everyone differently. For many girls, it manifests itself as quitting sport altogether in their teenage years. Others never really get into sport at all, even if they had wanted to. For me, it has led to a damaging desire to constantly prove myself, which makes me want to quit if I cannot find a way in which I am better or at least equal to the men. Regardless of how it manifests, the stereotypes often prevent women from fully taking part in and enjoying sport.
I count myself lucky to have grown up relatively sheltered from the gendered stereotypes, and there are barriers I have never faced because of my privilege as a white and cis woman. This makes me all the more determined to work for a sporting world where everyone feels welcome.