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.