Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Like A Girl: Physical Conditioning of Girls

My 5 year old is going to start Kindergarden this Fall. Being the diligent parent that I am, I did some investigating of what to expect of his new school. I went to their website and opened up the Parent Handbook. I expected to see information about absences, school closings, dress code, grading scale, etc... What I was surprised to find was their "Wellness Related Fitness Criteria". See here for yourself:

First thing I noticed was the color separation: blue for boys, pink for girls. I couldn't help but think of the irony that these were pink and blue boxes, but I digress. You will notice that boys and girls start off with the same physical activity requirements. However, there is a definite gap as the kids get older with boys being required to do more physical activity. The only exception where the girls are expected to do more is with the "back-saver sit & reach". One of my friends commented that basically they just wanted girls to be more flexible. What a spot on metaphor for traditional gender roles for women! 

I remember this testing in elementary school. We didn't have a gym so we got tested on the stage (behind the curtains thank goodness). My favorite part of that memory is reliving my leg wrestling success. I won all the matches against my female peers except for one who was much taller than me. They never let me try it against the boys but I bet I could have won those matches too. I had a lot of confidence in my physical ability then. I wonder why that changed...could it be...socialization and conditioning (see chart above)?

Some of you may get why this is an issue. For those of you who don't quite get it, you may be saying "but boys are stronger than girls" or "girls and boys have different body types". I would argue that anyone who is conditioned from an early age to reach certain physical goals will as an adult be able to do those things. For example, there was the great episode of Myth Busters where they busted the "you throw like a girl" myth/insult ("insult" because our society thinks associating something with the feminine means it's weak or less than). Watch them bust that myth here (totally worth the 3:39). Basically what they found was that since most boys/men are traditionally taught how to throw a ball/play catch, that...

"men throw with a better technique..and when we removed all that training and had our blank slates throw with their non-dominate hand, males and females threw with almost identical techniques...this suggest strongly that it is cultural, that it is training and when you remove that training you level the playing field...given the training, there's no reason why women can't overcome cultural bias and throw as well as the guys" 

So, if you start from the beginning with a level playing field of training and conditioning, in this case with physical activity, there is no reason why boys and girls won't grow up to have the same level of skills. The reason we require less physically of girls than boys is because of socialization and traditional gender roles. We are taught that women should strive for beauty and men should strive for strength. That does a disservice to us all, but mostly to women. The message is even though we are capable of being strong and reaching the same physical activity goals as men, we should conditioned to be physically weaker because society doesn't value strength in a woman. (What does it value? Beauty.) Women are basically taught to take up less space. It is assumed/taught that women are not capable of doing physical activity up to par with men. Check out this video from Always about "run like a girl". (Fave quote "Why can't "run like a girl" also mean win the race?" Excellent question. It can.)

I played sports my entire childhood. I played t-ball then softball from age 5-17. I played field hockey from age 14-17. I saw that the girls whose parents took them to softball camps where they got extensive training became much better than me, even though I think I was pretty good. ;-) The point is they got more training and conditioning. I got hit by a 70 mph softball (nothing about those are soft, by the way) in the thigh while up to bat once. After I got over being super mad at her for hitting me, I realized just how great of a pitcher she was (obviously not the time she hit me, but I think she meant to do that. #meangirls). Speaking of 70 mph pitches, did you hear about the 13 year old girl that pitched a shutout recently? Awesomesauce! But, did you also hear the Fox News correspondent ask her that incredibly sexist question? Le sigh.

The start of my t-ball career. The 80's were awesome.

With my t-ball team. I was one of 4 girls out of 14 kids.

Freshman year of field hockey. With my goalie mentor Towanda who passed on
her ass-kicking knowledge and my best friend and goal sweeper Tiffany.
Why were we wearing volleyball t-shirts? Because they put no funding into "girls" sports beyond getting us to and from our games but "boys" sports had new equipment and uniforms. Just in case you think what I'm pointing out with this article doesn't matter.

Field hockey Senior year when I was a co-captain.
I'm in the center with the feminist t-shirt. ;-)

A friend of mine who is in the military agreed with me that requirements for girls and boys should be the same. Then he referenced physical requirements in the military. I will agree that physical requirements in the military should be the same for everyone, but not until we have reached that generation where both boys and girls have been conditioned from the beginning to reach the same goals and taught the techniques to be successful. We're not there yet so I don't think it would be wise to raise the bar there until we have leveled the playing field. Say if they changed the standards next year for 6 year olds (the first age listed on the chart above), in 12 years when those boys and girls are 18 and eligible for the military, then the military physical standards should be the same for everyone.

So, let's start now. Let's start telling our daughters and sons, nieces and nephews, and kids we know from down the street that boys and girls are physically capable of doing the same things given the same training and conditioning. Let's empower everyone to do their best and have respect for others knowing that they are also capable of reaching the same goals and standards. Let's stop telling girls that they're weaker when we don't give them a chance to prove what they're capable of from the get-go. This message to our kids won't just have an effect on what girls and boys are taught in P.E. class, it will have a ripple effect where we start to see and treat both girls and boys (and everyone else on the gender continuum) with respect and give them a level playing field.

In other news, CBS just announced that it will launch the first all-female sports talk show. I have my fingers crossed that they do it right. It could go either way (awesome or stereotypical gender portrayals) but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. I would definitely watch as long as it was on at a reasonable hour and not stuck at midnight or something. Onward!