Athletics in the Lives of Women and Girls

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Women and girls who participate in sports and fitness programs are healthier and more academically successful. But the emphasis in college on “superstar” male athletes ignores the health and well-being of all students in favor of creating a few profitable athletes. In addition, male athletes in certain sports are taught to de-humanize and degrade women as part of their sports training. This in turn can lead to increased violence against women by these male athletes. We need to create a climate in which sports and fitness are for everyone, not just a few, and in which everyone’s abilities are tested and respected.

Health Benefits of Sports

Many studies have shown the importance of exercise in increasing cardiovascular endurance and strength, and decreasing the chances of heart attacks, strokes, back problems, osteoporosis, and other health problems.

A recent study shows that women who exercise regularly from menarche throughout their childbearing years can significantly reduce their risk of contracting premenopausal breast cancer. Women who exercised at least 4 hours/week reduced their risk by over 50%, and women who exercised 1-3 hours/week reduced their risk by 30%.

These findings are similar to a 1981 study conducted at Harvard’s Graduate School of Public Health, under Dr. Rose Frisch, which showed that young women who participated in college sports, or who exercised regularly in college, were significantly less likely to contract breast cancer and other reproductive cancers.

Academic and Leadership Benefits of Sports

Participating in sports also has been found to increase young women’s (and young men’s) self-esteem. High school athletes were more likely to describe themselves as “highly popular” than non-athletes.

Sports also confers academic benefits. High school girls (and boys) who participate in sports have higher grades than non-athletes. In addition, a larger percentage of athletes scored in the top quartile on a standardized test. The positive effects of sports on grades were especially pronounced for Hispanic girls: 20% of Hispanic girl athletes reported receiving high grades compared to 9% of non-athletes, and 39% scored in the top quartile of a standardized test, compared to 23% of non-athletes.

Rural Hispanic girls and suburban and rural white girls who were athletes had lower school drop-out rates47 and were more likely to go to a four-year college than non-athletes.

Furthermore, high school athletes are more likely than non-athletes to aspire to be leaders in their communities as adults.49 If girls are to grow up to be leaders, they need comparable opportunities to develop their leadership skills through team sports. Expanding sports opportunities for women and girls will help achieve the feminization of power in all realms.

How can girls be encouraged to exercise? Parents’ influence is important. Girls are more likely to participate if they have a parent who participated as a child, or who still plays sports. Also, parents can help by insisting schools provide equal facilities and opportunities to their daughters and sons.

Unfortunately, even girls who participate in sports and fitness cite obstacles, such as boys who refuse to pass balls to girls, or who criticize girls’ performances; girls getting picked for teams after all the boys are picked; gym teachers who assume girls are not as good as boys; and better coaches and equipment for boys’ teams.

While black and white girls participate equally in sports and fitness, black girls who quit sports are more likely to have problems with transportation or inadequate funds. In addition, more black girls than white girls feel boys make fun of girls who play sports.

(Empowering Women in Sports, The Empowering Women Series, No. 4; A Publication of the Feminist Majority Foundation, 1995)

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