Friday, June 27, 2014

The Girlie-in-Sports Problem

I was just watching Gnarly in Pink and enjoyed watching the little 6-year-old girls skateboarding in their tu-tus.  They were definitely little girls but also definitely athletes. Then they put up the statistic:
By the age of 14, girls are twice as likely to drop out of sports as boys.
My immediate thought was that by the age of 14, girls' bodies have gone through a huge metamorphosis that boys do not have to deal with for a few years.  Things like your center of gravity moving lower. Widening hips putting strain on the knees. Depth perception according to female tennis players who lament about how water retention before their period altering their ability to track the ball. I don't say that this proves that girls can't do sports after puberty, only that we need to recognize it and openly look capitalize on the strengths of women's bodies rather than pushing activities that only can be done by androgynous or amenorrhea-induced bodies.

I speak from experience, not as an athletic girl who lost her prowess to puberty, but one who found the pleasure in physical activity once her body changed.  I had always been the last on chosen for team sports. I had little upper body strength and short legs that made running races a loser's game for me. My dad taught me tennis at 9 and I tried my best, but was weak, lacking the long limbs and robust body type of the more tomboy-ish girls.  That's why I will never forget the day in seventh grade when I suddenly could do something effortlessly in gym class that all the other physically fit girls struggled with.  

We were learning how to jump on a trampoline.  Once we all got the basics, the teacher demonstrated something called "swivel hips."  You were supposed to bounce sitting, twisted in the air, and come down sitting facing the opposite direction. It was good-natured fun watching the girls try to find the coordination for that mid-air twist.  When my turn came, I sat, swung my broadening 13-year-old hips in a circle, and landed effortlessly facing the opposite direction.  Admiration and praise for doing something in GYM!  Never happened before.

A world opened up to me.  I had always been placed in the last row in ballet class. But at 14 I took jazz, and suddenly I was in the front row.  My twisty, sinuous, hippy body put me in the middle of my own, private, ugly duckling story.  I even got better at tennis, learning to use my spine to snap a whipping backhand.  I have ever since been a physically active person, a person who has spent a lifetime practicing dance and mime, was a clown in the circus, and who has taught movement, yoga, and dance to others.  All this was the gift of my changing body. 

The above statistic doesn't mention  how many girls take up dance.  How many start yoga. (Nor how many of the boys who quit sports, too, end up practicing these healthy, physical activities.)  Maybe girls do leave "sports" but then many "sports" are designed with the architecture of the male body in mind.  Once I realized I had a perfectly capable female body, I stopped wishing to be accepted for being able to do things privileged by the form and strengths of the male.   I offer no criticism of women whose body type lets them continue with the sports they enjoyed as girls, only that there should be activities that reveal what was revealed to me in a jazz dance class in France once. 

It was a dance class associated with the university during my junior year abroad. I was paying for three classes a week at this studio and taking the dance class that came with my enrollment for a fourth. Three young men from Iran had come to study at the university and decided to take the class for their physical education credit.  They entered the class confidently, seeing the little, lithe female instructor and short-legged, hippy me. She started what for me and for her was a slow, basic warm-up and set of moves.  The muscled trio struggled with all the core work, the fluid stretching, and the loose dynamics of the moves. After 45 minutes they were incapacitated, and the instructor ended the class early.  I had barely gotten warmed up, but understood.  This class for them was what gym class had been for me in 6th grade; all rope climbing and pushups. The three students never came back, and I wonder some times if the number of guys who say they don't dance is a reflection of their inability to take what was dished out to me almost daily until puberty.  I propose that moving with grace, that flexibility and core strength should be as privileged in elementary schools so that boys learn to respect "girlie" abilities such as "princess" poise and "ballerina" flexibility.