MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 15-Jun-16 11:04:18

Guest post: "Girls still think getting sweaty isn't for them"

Despite the increasing visibility of women in sport, girls are still not active enough, says Anna Kessel.

She will be on this thread between 12pm and 1pm today to answer your questions and join the discussion about the issues in her post.

Anna Kessel

Sports writer, Co-founder of Women in Football

Posted on: Wed 15-Jun-16 11:04:18

(108 comments )

Lead photo

"If children see their mums doing sport and exercise, they will likely follow in their footsteps."

We're about to embark on another glorious summer of sport, but for much of the population the exploits of Jessica Ennis-Hill in Brazil and the England men's team in France will have little impact on our everyday lives.

We know why, we've all seen the headlines: girls and women are not doing enough sport or exercise. Despite the increased visibility of female sporting role models, we're in the middle of an obesity crisis in this country and it's women and girls who are most at risk. Only 12% of 14-year-old girls do enough exercise, meanwhile one third of girls aged 12-15 in England are deemed overweight or obese. The estimated impact on the nation as a whole is startling: physical inactivity costs the UK economy £7.4bn a year.

The question is - why do so many women and girls have such a dysfunctional relationship with sport? While women's sport is more visible than ever (though still not visible enough, accounting for just 2% of all sports coverage in newspapers in 2013), why are we still getting it so wrong at grassroots level?

As someone who consistently bunked PE lessons throughout secondary school, now I'm a mum I find myself thinking a lot about how to make sure my daughter's relationship with sport and physical activity is a more positive one. Because although the policies are changing – such as the FA raising the age limit for girls and boys to play football together to 18 years – the culture is not.

I came across far too many depressing stories while researching for Eat Sweat Play. Like the mum who told me her eight-year-old daughter hates playing football in PE lessons because the boys refuse to pass to the girls and so they end up standing around getting cold and bored. Or the bright young football coach who told me that England women's success at the World Cup last year brought girls to his Under-10s football coaching sessions, but no matter how good they are the boys still won't accept them. Meanwhile, on my local parenting message board, mums lament that their five-year-old daughters cannot join a football session because the boys taking part are already so advanced the girls would be sidelined before they even start.

Running down the street together, kicking a ball in the park, cycling, swimming, talking about sport and exercise, finding women's sport to watch on TV, or in the local area – all give girls the message that sport is for them.


These examples are significant because they refute the common assumption that the problems for girls and sport begin at puberty. While periods and boobs are a barrier for girls taking up sport, or continuing to be active, the roots of the thing are much deeper.

With my own daughter I've watched how from a very early age a myriad of factors gave her the message that sport and being physically strong is for boys, while dolls and domestics are for girls. Comments from parents, images and slogans on kids' clothing, stories in books, programmes on TV…it's an anti-sport cultural assault that ensures young girls know that getting sweaty, muscular or powerful is not for them.

And so, in the summer of 2013 before she had even turned two years old, it was fascinating how she reacted to seeing England women on the TV at the European Championships. For the first time ever my daughter sat staring at the match, all those ponytails bobbing up and down the pitch. Girls! Like her! Playing sport! It was the first time she properly concentrated on a game of football.

Thank goodness then that Tracey Crouch, sports minister, has slashed the national sports strategy age target – from 14 years old to five – in an attempt to engage children as they start school. Because if we expect future generations of adults to do 150 minutes of exercise a week to stay healthy, then we've got to engender the habit in our kids first.

But while schools and sports coverage all play their part, arguably the most important role models of all are parents. Running down the street together, kicking a ball in the park, cycling, swimming, talking about sport and exercise, finding women's sport to watch on TV, or in the local area – all give girls the message that sport is for them. But with 75% of women telling Sport England that while they would like to play sport, fear of judgement stops them from having a go.

We've got to break the cycle somewhere though, and if children see their mums doing sport and exercise, they will likely follow in their footsteps. And who knows where that could take them. Laura Trott might never have won two Olympic gold medals had her mum not taken up cycling to lose weight.

And perhaps, similarly, Laura Trott's mum might never have taken up cycling if she didn't have children to be a role model for. That's the beauty of parenting. Sometimes our children motivate us to confront our biggest fears, even if it's a lifetime of PE dodging, in order to make a change for good.

By Anna Kessel

Twitter: @Anna_Kessel

JasperDamerel Wed 15-Jun-16 12:52:53

My daughter also has the experience of boys only passing to other boys at football. The girls started as beginners and the boys were already experienced and knew the rules. DD is a keen gymnast at hobby level, but the opportunities to do gymnastics for fun tend to end at the start of secondary school, so I do worry about what she will do then.

Twowrongsdontmakearight Wed 15-Jun-16 13:17:05

I remember reading a report about this a couple of years ago. Girls were turned off by school sports/PE provision at quite and early age. While sporty boys were role models for boys, it wasn't the case with girls. They were seen as sweaty and unfeminine.

One of the conclusions that I agree with is that it's the same old, boring, competitive forms of exercise that make up school PE that switch girls (and some boys) off. Hockey, netball, rounders, athletics yawn. All competitive with winners and losers.

The report discussed success in schools where non competitive exercise was offered, like Zumba and yoga. Or maybe Karate where the challenge is to be self competitive. After all the key aim is that everyone keeps being active and fit, not merely winning medals or trophies.

123rd Wed 15-Jun-16 13:31:12

My DD, who is very keen on all sports. And is good at them has noticed a massive decline in the effort put into girls pe at her secondary school. She left a primary school where all children were encourage to participate and compete. I think competition is very health.
Her high school don't enter quite a lot of the tournaments that friends in other schools go to.
My DD was recently asked to sit in on an "interview" panel for pe staff that the school were looking to recruit. She had to ask three questions
She came up with two good ones herself, and I suggest she ask each candidate how they would specially encourage more girls to keep up with their interest and participation in sport when at high school...unfortunately she couldn't remember a single answersmile

gleegeek Wed 15-Jun-16 13:35:30

Love your post twowrongsdon't make aright that's exactly our experience with sport. Dd enjoys sport but is put off by the competitive and 'popular' girls and the joys taking the kicked. Dd swims, climbs and does ballet 3 times a week so pretty active but hates school pe with a passion as she feels 'on show' and that she's being judged.
Another problem is they're not actually taught how to do the sport, just expected to play. Dd would love some focus on how to bowl/catch/ run etc and lots of time to practice not just endless games of netball where no-one passes to you.
I think it needs a complete overhaul of the syllabus to make any difference to levels of activity and enjoyment tbh. More emphasis on performance/fitness/skills and less on winning!

MidnightVelvetthe5th Wed 15-Jun-16 13:36:26

Yep I have to admit that when I was growing up as a girl in the 1980's if you wanted to participate in a sport then it was dancing, horse riding, gymnastics or figure skating. Everything else was for boys & if a girl did join in at rugby, say, then she was instantly labelled a lesbian.

As such I now as an adult have zero interest in sports. I do not participate in, watch or have any interest in sports.

I have 2 boys (10 & 6) & they are very sure that some sports are for girls. Every term when the letter from school comes out I ask DS2 if he wants to do gymnastics & he says its for girls & refuses. One of his friends had a birthday party a couple of months ago, it was a gymnastics party & all the guest list were little girls, DS was quite upset he wasn't invited at first but when he found out it was gymnastics he instantly understood why & was happy again as to him, it was clearly a just for girls party.

It saddens me that sport is still gendered & that our sportswomen are criticised for their looks. Think of Jessica Ennis-Hill being called fat or the swimmer that faced the comments about the size of her nose (apologies I can't remember her name, told you I had no interest in sports smile ) Its no wonder that girls are discouraged.

Had I a girl then I would encourage her into whichever sport interested her, and yes that might mean joining in & having a go or equally it might mean being hugely interested from the sidelines (those little girls in the 80's grew up into adult women today who daren't go swimming if they think they are too fat for fear of public censure). I applaud you OP in encouraging women to join in, but mothers still have a valuable contribution to make from the sidelines, whether its freezing our arses off in terraces, sewing on yet another badge or even just cheering so loudly our daughters can hear us on the pitch!

gleegeek Wed 15-Jun-16 13:36:54

Should have said boys taking the mickey!

almondpudding Wed 15-Jun-16 13:40:12

I agree with TwoWrongs. Most women (or men for that matter) don't participate in competitive sport as adults. It would be far better to scrap compulsory 'sport' and have PE be about learning exercise habits that people are likely to actually carry on with in adult life - Zumba type exercise classes, gym equipment, running activities like Couch to 5k where you are trying to reach a goal rather than beat people, climbing skills, cycling and dance classes.

Almost all the adults I know exercise. None of them do competitive sports.

megletthesecond Wed 15-Jun-16 13:55:58

Poor secondary school PE has a lot to answer for IMO. Grotty changing rooms and showers, impractical PE kit, popular girls taking over and hockey on sub -zero mornings aren't exactly inspiring.

It often crops up here and sounds like it hasn't changed since my day.

AnnaMarlowe Wed 15-Jun-16 13:59:30

We live in a small town on the edge of the countryside and there is a very good local sport centre as well as excellent provision of classes and clubs.

Pretty much all the women I know run, cycle, swim, play golf or tennis, go to the gym or are training for something. The school gate is awash with Lycra and bikes at drop off.

Most of the girls we know play at least one sport and dance.

However this is a very prosperous area where there are funds to pay for what can be very expensive hobbies and lovely (indoor and outdoor) surroundings in which to train.

Not so easy if you are a low income woman in a run down area of the country where it's not safe to exercise outdoors in the evening.

I assume that to increase take up of exercise across the country an mixture of education and opportunities are required.

LassWiTheDelicateAir Wed 15-Jun-16 14:06:43

The problem I have with sport is that it's just so boring. At school I had and still have no interest whatsoever in how many balls can be put in or over a net. I had and still have no interest in who can run faster than someone else or chuck something farther than someone else. I found it all was pointless and it was never fun. Swimming for example is mind numbingly dull.

I've been forcefully told this is all down to gender stereotyping. No it isn't- it seems permissible to have no interest in the arts but heaven forfend one has no interest in sport.

almondpudding Wed 15-Jun-16 14:10:18

I agree with you Lass.

When I look at the violence problems around football - fans in hospital right now, I am so relieved neither DD nor DS have an interest in sport.

KeyserSophie Wed 15-Jun-16 14:55:01

Lass But that doesn't explain the gender divide. Yes, some people find sport boring but you'd expect that to be equal numbers of men and women, wouldn't you?

A couple of comments on the OP:

I'm actually surprised that the FA sees increasing the age at which they separate girls and boys as encouraging longer participation by women. Where I live the junior football and rugby clubs recently started dividing earlier (from U5) and have seen improved retention of girls as a result. There is a lot to be said for female only spaces, especially given your observations re the issues of boys not involving girls in mixed sports. I'm eagerly awaiting DD turning 5 so she can play in the girl's squad- at the moment she's one of only 2 girls in a mixed group and she's started to make "is football just for boys?" comments.

Your comment about Laura Trott was also interesting. I am a competitive trail runner and also train in olympic lifting. Although I do it for the love of it, having a daughter does motivate me more. I want her to see sport and exercise as more than just a way to improve your looks (and unfortunately that is still how sport (even lifting) is marketing to women- it's no longer good enough to be skinny- you need to be skinny AND ripped). When DD comes to my gym she sees women who are strong and fit and are more concerned with how much they can squat overhead than conforming to a feminine ideal. Just hope some journo wanker doesn't counter that with some comment about how Serena Williams doesnt look feminine enough for his liking.

That said, Anna also makes a great point re demographics. The barriers to women doing sport are greater than for men and they're greatest for low income women. Women take a higher share of household chores, even when both they and their partners work, take more responsibility for childcare etc. I've lost count of the times I've heard women say "I can't exercise because I've got no childcare as DH is at the gym/football/ triathlon training 5 nights a week".

On that basis, I don't think it's as simple as providing role models. It's about women being able to claim some leisure time and having the financial means to pay for participation- very few sports are completely free.

MrsPnut Wed 15-Jun-16 15:27:27

My daughter has played rugby since she was 4 and has played in a mixed team all that time, mostly as the only girl. We are coming up to her final year with the team as the RFU have changed the ending of mixed teams from the end of minis (U12) to U11's.
This means my daughter will miss out on the end of minis tour with the team she has played with for years, it means that she will in likelihood give up rugby because there isn't an U13's team at her club because it isn't seen as a priority where as retention of U17 and U18 male players and their transition to the senior team is.
The local clubs can only muster a few girls playing rugby at every age group, because it's seen that rugby isn't for girls. It isn't played in many schools for boys and almost never for girls yet it is a sport that teaches a lot about team work, resilience and discipline.

JasperDamerel Wed 15-Jun-16 15:47:32

Yes to the childcare and money barriers to women in sport. I can exercise regularly now because children are welcome at my gym.

ealingwestmum Wed 15-Jun-16 15:47:53

Another problem is they're not actually taught how to do the sport, just expected to play. Dd would love some focus on how to bowl/catch/ run etc and lots of time to practice not just endless games of netball where no-one passes to you.

A great point gleegeek. There's often limited timetabled slots for PE in some schools. As a result, selection of squads can default to those already showing aptitude (e.g. from previous schools, external clubs etc) and therefore puts off those that are not given time to learn, or had previous exposure pre secondary. This can create a no point in trying mentality as the usual girls get selected, why bother.

If they do show some potential, they're then asked to join clubs externally to supplement their skills...not financially possible for some.

Committing to sport (as an extra curricular activity) is also a common barrier as it can impact on the wider family, and solicit negative comments from other parents such as when do they have downtime, to be kids and just think etc. The reality is for lots of girls (like mine), that sport is a perfect outlet for relaxing the brain, avoids being sucked in totally to living a life on social media 24/7 and actually helps academically, organisationally as well as providing wider friendship groups.

But, it does not stop them being judged by their more mainstream peer groups as being weird for prioritising sports over their social life and engagement with friends on SM.

PolaroidsFromTheBeyond Wed 15-Jun-16 15:52:36

Girls are turned off exercise for two main reasons IMO.

1) They feel self conscious doing it. Many teenage girls are uncomfortable with their developing bodies. The very last thing I wanted to do as an awkward, overweight teen was to run about on a school playing field. I was painfully embarrassed about my newly developed breasts. I remember being absolutely humiliated when a teenaged boy commented on my shape. Even now, as a healthy adult who runs for pleasure, I still feel self conscious sometimes. And I have lost count of the number of times men have shouted comments at me from the safety of their cars. Fear of being laughed at is a massive barrier to exercise for both teen girls and adult women.

2) The emphasis on team sports at school. I've already said above that I was painfully self conscious. If you add to this the pressure of not letting a team down then you have a recipe for misery. I was always picked last. I was always afraid I would drop the ball or score an own goal or be run out. When these things happened, as they inevitably did, I was humiliated and miserable. Why isn't there more emphasis on fitness for it's own sake in schools rather than endless team games? I enjoy running as an adult - I would probably have enjoyed it as a teen too had there not been a focus on team races or coming first. What about exercise classes? Plenty of adults enjoy yoga or Zumba classes. Why don't we get these in schools?

VestalVirgin Wed 15-Jun-16 16:44:58

The only exercise I get nowadays is muscle building exercise on machines. Solely focused on strength.

I think that should be done at school.

With two or four lessons a week, you do not get good at anything endurance-related. It is just keeping the children occupied.
And the sexism was ridiculous. There was a number of things only girls had to do - basically, dancing. That wasn't even sport.

bilbul Wed 15-Jun-16 16:45:28

I was terribly unsporty/uncoordinated at school and years of being picked last for teams means that I am now overweight and don't enjoy exercise. Which is a shame, because I Really Want to be active, to get a remain fit, and to enjoy it.

But it's a chore, it's painful, and it brings to mind the old memories and i end up thinking, "what's the point as I'll never ben good enough?"

ForHarry Wed 15-Jun-16 18:39:06

Some people are not going to enjoy sport. That's OK but we need to train our children to take exercise. I was and am appalling at anything requiring coordination. But I have always walked. I also enjoy messing in the park with my children with a ball or frisbee, but only for a short time..it's all activity though.

almondpudding Wed 15-Jun-16 19:11:11

Some schools have definitely taken up these approaches.

DS's school did gym sessions at a local gym in place of one of the two PE lessons every week for the whole of years 10 and 11. DD's schools has dance in place of one of the PE lessons for everyone from years 7-9.

DS has kept up his gym membership now he has left school. And dance of course is an actual skill required of adults in various social situations.

gleegeek Wed 15-Jun-16 19:15:51

Was just discussing this with dd. Today they had to volunteer for what they want to do on sports day. She has chosen netball and football because no-one watches those and all the sporty people will be doing the athleticsshock so it's not mortifying to be rubbish in front of them. Also she says she might actually get to touch the ball as the non-sporty ones will pass to her!
This is the reality of school sports...

LassWiTheDelicateAir Wed 15-Jun-16 19:46:29

As ForHarry mentioned there is a difference between exercise and sport. The only time I enjoyed being in the PE hall was in the month before Christmas each year when we did Scottish country dancing.

It's brilliant exercise and has, unlike anything else I was taught in PE (apart from swimming) , actually been used and been useful in later life (as anyone who has attended a Scottish wedding will understand)

borntobequiet Wed 15-Jun-16 19:46:40

The menstrual cycle can adversely affect some young women who would otherwise be successful sportswomen. Mood swings, cramps, physical changes such as bloating (water retention) and dealing with very heavy bleeding can make it difficult to train and participate in sport (and other activities). I comment as someone who has experienced this, as did my daughter. It's not always a desire to "not get sweaty" - a comment I find somewhat insulting.

GrumpyMummy123 Wed 15-Jun-16 20:40:23

I agree with a lot of the other posters on here. At primary school I loved gymnastics but once at secondary school the only option to continue was to comit to several times a week at competitive level. So I stopped. I didn't really do any exercise again. I hated PE at school. Humiliating was probably the best word to describe it. Completely put me off.

Until about 25 year on I've now discovered I quite like jogging. I'm not competitive at all so any kind of competition puts me off. I want to feel reward for my own effort and improvement not compared against others. I signed up for a Race for Life as a New Years Resolution and actually got a buzz over training for it. To see myself improve week by week from not being able to haul my big bottom 100m to finally actually managing 10k today. I have me run next week and loved having the challenge. I'm now thinking - what next.

Of course jogging doesn't suit everyone and I hated it as a teenager, but I love that my toddler sees me put my trainers on, then goes to get my water bottle for me and says 'running mummy'. OK so he's a boy but he still sees me getting hot and sweaty and doing excercise as a normal thing. I never saw my mum (or rest of my family) do exercise, apart from us kids in classes. I firmly believe that seeing parents/ role models enjoy exercise/ sports for fun is really important to set a good example and show how normal it is.

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