The Girly-Girl Doesn’t Play Sports, Youth Categorization of Girls as Preventative Sport Participation Measures

By Haley M.

The cultural meaning of the female body and how it is regulated and controlled takes on a particular meaning when discussing women‟s participation in sports because athletic endeavours require women to engage their bodies in practices that are typically associated with masculinity…sports play a powerful role in the reproduction of patriarchal gender regimes (Adams, Schmitke, Franklin, 2005, p. 19).

When I was a little girl, I was put into the “girly-girl” box. I often question what exactly it was that I did that earned me a spot in this particular box. I believe that this label was only partially earned as a result of my personality. My favorite color was pink despite having a blue and yellow room when I was little, and my sports of choice were dance, skiing, and swimming, despite having tried soccer, softball, and hockey. My parents quickly learned that I was more interested in making a bouquet of flowers than actually kicking or hitting a ball. I was far more interested in doing crafts and learning how to bake than I was going to play on the jungle gym or in the sand box.

Certainly, my personality influenced the “box” that I was categorized into. Yet, I frequently wonder what other factors came into play when placing me within this box. For example, later in junior high I wanted to try new sports including basketball, volleyball, and karate. Upon announcing this both my parents and my friends, they all looked at me in disbelief. My friends even tried to convince me that it was a bad idea. While my parents were slightly shocked, they supported the idea that I could do anything I put my mind to. Allow me to slightly fast-forward, my volleyball career ended in less than a week, karate no more than a month, and basketball lasted about two years, and I was only really a decent player when we were on defense.

Despite all of this overwhelming evidence, attributable to my personality, that indicated that I really was the girly-girl everyone perceived me to be, I wondered if there were other factors that came into play when I was placed into this category. Physically, I already had the Barbie doll look, Caucasian, petite, blonde hair, and blue eyes. Financially, my parents had enough income to support me in any activity I chose to pursue, and it was my mother’s pride and joy to dress me extremely well.

Social norms dictate the way we engage in activities. My participation in sport was influenced by the “box” I was placed into, as early as primary school. The “girly-girl” and “tomboy” classifications are socially constructed labels. This dichotomy of stereotypes comes with respective privileges and consequences. Specifically the label girly-girl has been academically defined as “emphasized femininity” (Leahy, 1994). Meaning, to conform to this particular ideal means “to be traditionally pretty, to appear conventionally fashionable, and to pay constant attention to their appearance” (Cockburn & Clarke, 2002, p. 653). Adams, Schmitke, and Franklin (2005) indicate that “on the playing field, being a girly-girl is a challenge because being sweaty and physical is not typically associated with ideal femininity” (p. 23). It is further discussed how female athletes have been pressured to conform to the traditional notions of femininity. For example, to try and preserve the femininity ideal, girls who participate in sport are encouraged by coaches, teammates, and other social influencers to have long hair, wear ribbons and makeup while playing the sport, and to be wearing revealing uniforms (Adams, Schmitke, Franklin, 2005).

On the opposite end of the label spectrum, “tomboys” are described in academia as girls who do not limit their preferences for activities along gender lines and feel comfortable playing games traditionally reserved for boys (Plumb & Cowan, 1984). The literature indicates that there is an ambiguity associated with tomboyism because of lack of clear guidelines for what is appropriate and normative behaviour for girls. Further, ambiquity arises as a result of some scholars who associate androgyny with girls who are described as “tomboys” because they are performing both masculinity and femininity (Plumb & Cowan, 1984).

What I found to be the most interesting in all of my research was one particular study that identified certain activities that would be performed by the “girly-girl,” the “tomboy”, and what the study classified as neutral. The study indicated that the girly girls participated in activities including playing a musical instrument or doing crafts (Van Volkom, 2003). The tomboys engaged in activities including basketball, baseball, soccer, and wrestling (Van Volkom, 2003). A neutral females partook in running, swimming, or tennis (Van Volkom, 2003). I compared these activities to those that I currently engage in and those I used to participate in. Currently, I run and swim, and I previously played basketball and played instruments. Although I was place in the girly-girl box when I was little, my current activities indicate more neutral interests.

The categorization of girls creates constraints. If a stereotyped “girly-girl”did not feel the social pressure to learn how to sit tall, be polite, never to burp or swear, be poised, and conform to the feminine ideal, perhaps she would discover other activities she is passionate about. Labels are society’s way of forcing youth to conform and abide by familiar normative action. Although current society is moving towards a more all encompassing gender approach to activities, constraints are still dictating the choices youth are making about their chosen sports and leisure activities.


Adams, N., Schmitke, A., & Franklin, A. (2005). Tomboys, Dykes, and Girly girls:Interrogating the subjectivities of adolescent female athletes. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 33(1/2), 17-34.

Cockburn, C. & Clarke, G. (2002). “Everybody’s looking at you!”: Girls negotiating the femininity deficit‟ they incur in physical education. Women’s Studies International Forum, 25 (6), 651-665.

Leahy, T. (1994). Taking up a position: Discourses of femininity and adolescence in the context of Man/Girl relationships. Gender & Society, 8 (1), 48-72.

Plumb, P. & Cowan, G. (1984). A developmental study of destereotyping and androgynous activity preference of tomboys, nontomboys, and males. Sex Roles, 10, 703-712.





4 responses

  1. Very well written, it is interesting to see a different experience and perspective. Looking back I would have classified myself as a “tomboy” growing up, but during those times I never felt like a “tomboy”. The label never felt right, since I was a girl not a boy. The study that you mentioned that label activities that would be generally done by the “girly-girl”, “tomboy” and as neutral, I notice I do not fit into one category, I enjoy crafting, basketball, and swimming. You mentioned that “tomboy” is defined as performing both masculinity and femininity, I guess I am still navigating those fine lines. I now wonder what in my upbringing made my personality more ambiguous and undefined by these labels.

    This also made me think about boy labels, and I am struggling to come up with labels used like these ones for boys. Boys get called “sissies” or “gay” if they do not enjoy sports or enjoy more feminine activities, but that’s more name calling than a label. Perhaps, it is because of masculinity being so defined and boxed off. That boys are expected to all like the same activities and not have personalities that are girl like. Whereas for girls it is more socially acceptable for them to “act like” a boy.

    Great post!

  2. Great post Haley! I grew up in a small town where there were definitely those labels of who is the girly girl and who in the tomboy. When I was younger, those labels were not around. Most of my friends played sports. However, as I got older, more and more of my female friends were dropping out of sports. They started pursing more of societies norm activities for a female, such as drama. I decided to hang out with my guy friends, which got me the label of being a tomboy all throughout High School, which had it’s challenges.

    As you said, when you were older and wanted to try different activities such as basketball, karate and volleyball, and your friends had that “disbelief”, I think there are many females that can relate to that. You were lucky to have that support from your parents and the confidence to try those activities. As society has norms, especially in regards to females and playing sports, I think it is important to have role models such as yourself. To show everyone that it is 2017 and it is okay for any person to pursue any of their dreams, regardless of age, gender, race ect.

    Awesome post!

  3. Great post Haley! I think it is really interesting what falls into the categories of girly-girly and tomboy. Growing up I also definitely fell into the girly-girly category and was met with the same disbelief when I decided that I wanted to play rugby. But I think that the categories are more defined when we are younger and become less and less defined as we get older and move into adulthood. I think it is really interesting what you say about how the girly-girly constraints to sport go beyond just a type of activity and translate into what is considered acceptable behaviours for girls. While reading your blog post, I realized that there are not clearly defined separate categories for boys to fall in, while some of their activities may get different labels, their personalities and interests are not labelled in the same way that girls are. Again I really enjoyed your post, great job!
    Marie O.

  4. This is a great post Haley, it really got me to think about where I fall in the girly-girl/tom-boy spectrum. I like to think I am someone who has a good balance between both of these. I am pretty good at resisting the gender stereotypes of being female, but I still strongly display my feminine qualities. I just really think it is so crazy that there are aspects and characteristics of one’s personality, their likes, dislikes, activities they participate in, all of which have nothing specifically to do with whether their sex or gender has so much of an impact on how society perceives whether they’re a too girly or too boyish.
    I also find it interesting how these ‘girly girl’ and ‘tom boy’ terms exist for girls but nothing really comes to mind of the equivalent for boys. I don’t remember ever hearing the term ‘boyie boy’ (not sure of the spelling here), or ‘girly-boy’ being used to describe males who are acting too manly or too feminine. Just interesting to possibly think about this as another way that girls and women need to make sure that they strike that perfect balance to be what society thinks a girl/woman should be.

    Danielle A

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