As an athlete in middle school, high school, and college, I was painfully aware of the limited value the majority of society placed in my athletic abilities. There was no way to ignore the fact that the twenty loyal fans always present at my high school basketball games, turned into several hundred during the last several minutes of the game. They were not there to watch us play; the boys were about to begin. Sports always contributed immensely to my developing self-esteem and in many ways defined who I am and how I approach life; however, certain aspects of being a female athlete were also infuriating. At times I was overlooked or dismissed; not always explicitly, but through the general attitude of the people I was around.
What kind of message are we sending to young girls when no one shows up to their games? When more people show up to watch the boy’s football team (who haven’t had a winning record in eight years) than to watch a women’s soccer team (who has won the regional championships three years running)? Many young girls, including myself, internalize these implicit messages. The message is that the accomplishments I achieved as an athlete do not mean as much as the accomplishments of a boy who has done the same thing or even a boy who has accomplished far less.
Contributing to the devaluation of women in sports is the lack of representation on television and in media coverage. The assumption made by many people is that there is no interest in women’s sports, therefore they cannot be broadcast on television or represented equally in magazines or on the news. Perhaps this is true. It is certainly the message I got as a young athlete. But what if it has to do more with the accessibility of following your favorite teams? Or the fact that there are little to no professional women’s sports teams in your area? It is hard to follow a team who’s games are broadcast twice per season, or who’s games are only broadcast on the channels included in a special television sports package.
All of this makes me wonder; if girls felt that their athletic accomplishments were more valued, would girls engage in sports more often? Would more girls stick with sports longer? Feel greater pride in their abilities? A greater sense of accomplishment? There are so many aspects of my life that I can see as directly impacted by my time as an athlete. I am sad at the idea that some girls may not have these experiences because of the messages they are given about their hard work. As an athlete, I always had a community. My body image was not based on the ideals of feminine fragility but rather strength and power (physical, emotional, and mental), my self-esteem was raised, and I created unforgettable memories. There are many ways that girls can have these experiences and sports is merely one of them; however we need to make sure that the option of sports is an engaging, validating, empowering, and exciting choice for all children and adolescents. If I have a daughter, I do not want her to grow up in a world where her accomplishments are devalued because of her gender; whether that accomplishment is related to sports, or any other area of her life.
- Written by Vanessa Shafa, M.A.