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Are we dressing our girls out of sports?

September 28, 2009 – 4:13 PM


By Katie Culver

At the playground the other day a girl struggled to climb up a curved ladder after my son. She was wearing sandals. Her feet kept getting tangled in her dress.

Another day, a brother and sister at the park with their grandparents were swinging when the boy jumped down and ran to the next piece of equipment. The grandfather lifted the girl out of the swing and warned: “Now remember, no running! You have sandals on.”

“No running?” At the playground? Really?

When we wonder why women and girls still struggle for equal opportunity in this country, when we puzzle over why girls are so often discouraged – if not outright excluded – from sports, it might be time to consider how we dress our kids. From birth.

This is about more than the fact that gifts that come with a new baby differ strikingly. When parents shop for children’s clothes there is a clear (if oft-ignored) message being sent. Girl’s clothing has a common theme: “I’m cute” or “I’m a helpless princess” and “my looks matter the most.” Boy’s clothes, on the other hand, are all about cars, trucks, and sports — themes that suggest action and physical activity.

When my own daughter Mia started to creep it was obvious: It’s tough to crawl in a dress.  Yet, baby girls are always clothed in dresses.  Girls are at a disadvantage already.

I make sure Mia wears leggings/shorts and t-shirts and insist on sneakers she can walk/run in whenever we go out to play (the rule is the same for my son, who is five. You can’t run in crocks!).  The good news: At two-and-a-half, Mia runs and climbs like a champ, dribbles a soccer ball – and can throw a curve ball.

Yes, she is coordinated — but this is no accident.

Girls must be encouraged to develop physical skills early on and especially once they enter school. More often than their boy counterparts, girls opt out of physical activity—sitting out at recess and during gym class. Girls also tell researchers that they don’t “like” to play sports, both findings that emerged from my own dissertation study (“Shut Out: How Hegemony, Discouragement, and Opportunity Affect Access to Sports for Low-Income, Urban Girls.”) Or check out the joint study by Harvard School or Public Health and the National Women’s Law Center on Massachusetts girls lagging behind boys in sports participation.

(For those interested in more: see W.C. Taylor’s study, Physical Activity Among African-American and Latina Middle School Girls, 1999, or Lena Williams, Women’s Sports: Hispanic Female Athletes are Few and Far Between,” 2002.)

The point: It is tough to play when you lack skills and boys dominate the play space. But it’s even tougher when you are a girl who is not dressed for playing.

Forget puffed sleeves, ribbons and fancy shoes. Let’s change the focus of girl clothes from some rigid notion of gender appropriate “fashion” to function. From pretty to comfy. From the emphasis on looks to an emphasis on action.

And, while we’re at it, as long as we parents are consumers, why don’t we favor clothing companies that feature girls playing sports, driving cars and being active? Consider how girls’ perspective on sport would change if they could picture themselves actually in the game — from the start?

Katie Culver, a mother of (soon to be three) children, is a consultant for the Barra Foundation and conducts Gender Workshops for teachers and parents. She holds a Ph.D. in Urban Education from Temple University.

  1. 4 Responses to “Are we dressing our girls out of sports?”

  2. Hi Katie
    You’re spot on! Have the same experience with my daughter who’s 5 now. Insisted on sneakers and shorts and not ‘cute’ clothes, often opposing other family members. There’s a huge difference in the level of physical activeness that my daughter displays vs other girls who are encouraged to be ‘nice & pretty’ all the time. My girl does get to be pretty in pink, but that doesn’t mean dresses all the time.
    Kudos for pointing out an obvious one that we are so conditioned to miss!

    By Anita Lobo on Sep 29, 2009

  3. Katie-
    What a fantastically insightful piece! In stating the obvious you have shed light on an issue that is on every playground in America. Your blog certainly struck a nerve since my family company actually manufacturers Athletic Apparel. When it comes to accomodating girl’s and women, the demand is that the product not only be functional but fashionable. Girl’s can have it all! The time for sitting out because of silly sandals and droopy dresses should be long gone since there are wonderful products to accomodate. Above all, your point illustrating the very simple changes that can have far reaching effects is profound. Hopefully, all take serious note!

    By Kristine on Sep 29, 2009

  4. Katie,
    You are right on — I went to buy pjs for my 21-month-old daughter a few weeks ago. For girls, they had all pink (literally) covered in cupcakes (food), princesses and polkadots. The pjs for boys were a variety of colors – yellow, green, blue and had trucks, dinosaurs, animals, balls on them. I immediately picked the dinosaur ones out for her! Thanks for sharing,
    Erin Dullea, CPCC, ACC

    By Erin on Sep 29, 2009

  5. Hey Katie – You wrote an insightful, passionate piece that should be read by every parent! You must be a great mom! I hope you write more pieces – maybe even a children’s book!!!


    By Nicole on Sep 29, 2009

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