Girls, Running and Role Models

About a week ago, I was stretching by my parked car before a run on my favorite local path when I saw a young girl, maybe nine or ten years old, get out of a car with her dad. I overheard their conversation as she was stretching while her dad unloaded his bike.

She looked at him and said, “I hope you can bike fast because I am a really fast runner.”

Her confidence was beaming and she started running down the trail ahead of her dad, calling for him to catch up.

I started my run about five minutes later and saw her about a half mile down the trail. I made eye contact with her dad and I couldn’t stop smiling — her innocence and youthful love of running seems so rare for girls her age, and you could tell that he was so proud of his little girl.

I go to that path at least once a week and this was the first time I saw a young girl exercising. Why is that?

By the age of 14, girls drop out of sports twice as often as boys. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, “factors such as social stigma, lack of access, safety and transportation issues, costs and lack of positive role models, can all contribute to the reasons why girls drop out of sports in their adolescent years.”

As a female runner myself and a coach of female runners, I am saddened that so many girls quit or never take up sports. It kills me that so many young girls are worried sports aren’t feminine, or are so self-conscious or even hate their bodies before they are even 10 years old.

Over 80 percent of 10-year-old girls are afraid of being fat. By middle school, 40 to 70 percent of girls are dissatisfied with two or more parts of their body, and body satisfaction hits rock bottom between the ages of 12 and 15.

Low self-esteem and confidence typically leads to a high likelihood of physical inactivity and dropping out of sports at a young age. Since their confidence levels and belief in their abilities is low, often girls and young women are afraid of failure in sports so many don’t even try sports in the first place.

Only 4% of television sports coverage is dedicated to women’s sports and that percentage is trending down.

There is a lack of positive female sports role models in the media and most communities. Girls often do not see confident, strong, powerful and athletic women on television, in print, or out in the real world. Instead, media and often language and behavior at home and in the community reinforces the idea that physical appearance is the most valuable characteristic in women.

Listen to girls talk about themselves and each other. Often you’ll hear girls criticizing other girls who are confident, strong, or athletically competitive, or minimizing those characteristics in themselves. Meanwhile, these characteristics are praised in boys.

Young girls need strong and athletic role models in their lives to encourage participation and normalize athletics and competition in female lives. Telling girls sports are great is one thing, but tween and teen girls don’t always listen to their parents. Therefore, having adult women participating in sports serving as role models for girls is crucial.

When you run on the public roads or out at the park, that’s exactly what you’re doing. But we can do more. I’m already kicking myself for not taking 10 minutes out of my run last week to talk with the girl I saw out on the path. We can volunteer with programs like Girls on the Run, or at elementary schools. We can encourage nieces, cousins, and siblings to participate in sports.

We can coach. Right now there are schools and sports clubs that are in desperate need of coaches in your area. Some of the positions even pay. We can coach sports other than running even, especially at the youngest youth levels where the focus is on participation rather than competition and skill mastery.

Most women and girls believe being beautiful is something to aspire to. Rather than slamming that belief, we can go with it and work to redefine what beautiful is. We need to encourage girls that being beautiful is more than stereotypical photo-shopped Barbie-like images they see in the media, that being beautiful does not necessitate obsessing about weight or size, or micromanaging what one eats.

Since sportswomen must have an athletic body in order to meet the demands required by their sport while simultaneously trying to maintain society’s ideal feminine body-image standards, it is not uncommon for them to feel forced to face a lose-lose situation.

Uniforms are something that seem innocuous, but often can discourage girls from participating in sports or, if they do, can often lead to disordered eating and body image. So many girls feel insecure by revealing uniforms. The fear of looking “fat” or “too big” or the tendency for a girl to compare her body to the bodies of the athletes around her can lead to dieting, eating disorders, or dropping out of sports all together.

We adult athletes need to rock our running outfits with our imperfect bodies — without fixating on them. Just run or jump or kick with your cellulite, your arm flab, your chub rubbing. It’s normal, so act like it. Calling attention to it, covering it all up, calling others brave who dare venture out in public or post photos of their body imperfections is only reinforcing the idea that a woman’s appearance is the most important thing about her. Think about a girl running a race while worried about her butt jiggling. Do you want that? Of course not. If you want girls to run free, we adults need to too.

We need to quit with the social stigmas. Despite massive steps towards freeing people from the confines of gender roles, harmfully narrow ideas of what it means to be female persist. Just because a girl or woman is athletic, doesn’t mean she is gay, ugly, or masculine and even if she is any of those things, so what? There is no right way to be female and we adults can help here by checking the way we talk about gender roles ourselves.

As female athletes continue to persevere and work through various gender constraints, they also begin to redefine what it means to be a sportswoman in Western culture, which is an initial step towards redefining femininity.

Next time you go out on a run, think about a girl looking out a car window watching you. What do you want her to know?

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6 comments

  1. You got me inspired, I am jumping out of my comfort zone, but just agreed to help coach our high school’s XC team starting this summer! Here goes nothing!

  2. I participated in different sports growing up, but it wasn’t until I was 19 when I started running – and I’ve never loved anything like I love running. My parents let me try out different sports and quit when I didn’t love something. However, I was always involved in some sort of activity, even if I had quit certain ones. I think that the lack of pressure and the focus on happiness is what helped me stick with sports.

    I love when I come across kids on the running trail or the track near my place. I’m usually in my running clothes when I drop my son off at school and there’s a small group of girls that have asked me questions about running. I always stick around and talk with them, because I know how awesome it felt when I was a kids and “one of the big kids” would talk to me about a particular activity. Sometimes we don’t realize that the smallest things do make an impact. A 14 year old girl on my street recently started taking track seriously and after her parents were telling me about it, I went home, packed up some of the running gear I hadn’t worn in a long time, and a pair of shoes I had only worn a handful of times, and I gave all of it to her. The look on her face and the appreciation from her parents when I showed up with the items is one I won’t forget. Honestly, it just made me so happy to see her following her passion, especially at an age where it is common for more girls to withdraw from sports.

  3. Great post. I similarly got a big grin recently when my walk home through a park took me through a few different young girls practicing their soccer drills or football or softball with their parent(s). It was really cool to see them out there working on their skills and their families supporting them in that. This post was a nice reminder that I have some work to do in my own bad habits, and to be on the lookout for opportunities to encourage and inspire girls in sport.

  4. Great post! I have a biased vantage point because, as a physician in a pediatric sports medicine department, I see a ton of young female athletes. They come in all shapes and sizes, which I love. What I do not love is what I see of the consequences of today’s heavy emphasis on early sport specialization – overuse injuries, ACL tears, lack of physical literacy, eating disorders, etc. I think we should encourage girls and young women to be well-rounded, physically active individuals through a variety of avenues so they can develop and continue as athletes across their life span. Modeling this ourselves is a great way to communicate this message.

    1. Hey Rebecca! Thanks for sharing and I totally agree with athletes specializing too early. As a college coach, when I recruit, I look for girls who have done multiple sports because they are typically stronger overall and less susceptible to injury.

  5. Love this! As a mom of a 6 year old girl I feel extra strongly about it. That’s why I’m one of the few moms out there coaching soccer with dozens of dads, even though I’ve never played the sport!

    I was not an athletic child growing up – I dabbled at school, but with non-athlete parents living in the inner city, sports just weren’t a common thing. It was only in high school that I found rugby, which set me on a path to becoming an athlete in a range of sports. The amazing thing about the sport of rugby for teenaged girls is that a) almost everyone starts at the high school level, so there’s no worry if you haven’t been playing since you were a little kid and b) there’s a role for all body sizes and types. It needs speedy people, strong people, tall people, big people. I’ve seen so many girls gain confidence and a new appreciation for what their body CAN do through the sport.