Valerie Mulcahy: Girls should never have to choose between fitness and fitting in

Let’s make it attractive to girls to be active, writes Valerie Mulcahy.

I recently read with concern the findings of an extensive survey on fitness, carried out on over a quarter of Irish secondary school students.

Conducted by Irish Life Health in conjunction with its awards ceremony for the 2016 Schools Fitness Challenge, the research found Irish adolescent males are 42% fitter than their female counterparts of the same age.

The study outlines how the fitness gap increases as boys and girls progress through secondary school. For example, in first year boys are, on average, 32% fitter than girls, but by fourth year they are 42% fitter.

This alarms me, not just because I am a secondary school physical education teacher. And it also strikes a chord as a former female athlete in a male-dominated sport.

Research like this gives us an insight into more than fitness. It implies boys in fourth year are not only 42% fitter than girls, they are healthier, more confident at physical activities and because of this, have more opportunities than their female friends.

Physical activity, and as a result fitness, is among the chief determining factors in a person leading a happy and healthy life. Enjoying physical activity when you are young develops healthy habits for mental and physical wellbeing throughout life. Excelling at physical activities can open the door to incredible opportunities and experiences through sport.

It is sad to know in today’s society, the role and benefits of fitness have eluded so many girls before they leave through the school gates. I wonder how many factors affect these statistics and how significant each factor is on the overall impact. In order to bring about a positive change, we need to truly understand the causes and examine the various influencing factors to do with our girls and sport.

Trying to understand this for myself, I have thought a lot about my own time at secondary school and wondered where I would have ranked compared to my male counterparts if I had taken part in this study.

I may not be a good example of what is happening here, or I may be the perfect example, but I always felt different from my female peers because of my level of involvement and the enjoyment I took from physical activity.

I came to terms very early on with being singled out as the only girl engaging in what, at the time, were seen to be boyish activities. I really loved exercise, of all kinds, and playing sports of all kinds. This did mean I didn’t spend as much time with girls my own age and had to get comfortable mucking around with my male peers. I wouldn’t say I felt lonely early on but if I was sensitive to being surrounded by boys it may have drastically altered my future.

The happiness I enjoyed from competitive sports always outweighed any concerns I had about trying to fit in with what the other girls were doing.

Boys never made an exception of me or make me feel unwelcome. In fact, I was always encouraged by the way I was picked early in the team selection process at the start of each lunch break.

For a girl who would have preferred to spend time with her female classmates, the urge to kick a ball around may not have been quite as strong. And it is here I reach the conclusion that, from the outset of life, the toys we give our children and the gender stereotyping in the playground of old has been the start of the problem.

We can’t expect children to choose a game over each other. But by giving girls the option of playing with their female friends while kicking a ball around, perhaps we could eliminate part of the social aspect that negatively impacts girls.

Not every boy enjoys sport and given equal access not every girl would either. But children should never have to choose between fitting in and being fit.

By first year, I was among the fittest children in an all-girls school. By the end of first year, I was playing on 12 teams in a range of sports. At that age, when statistically boys are now 32% fitter than girls, I accessed every sport available to girls my age within my locality. My relationship with exercise, and ultimately my confidence level when it came to physical activity, was already established and so was my potential for a future making the most of sport.

Without the access to sport, in the playground, in my community and in my secondary school, I would never have had a choice to make physical activity such an enduring part of my life. I was fortunate to have male friends who included me and a mother who helped form a club in our community for myself and other local girls to join.

So I know from experience the choices, or lack of choices, girls have in comparison to boys play an important part in the findings of the study. It is logical the more choice a child has, the more likely they are to find something they are good at and will enjoy, and therefore endure through challenges.

We are only now beginning to address the inequalities between men and women in sport in Ireland. On a professional level in the majority of sports, there are incredible discrepancies in finance, coaching, facilities, media coverage, and fan support between male and female athletes. And then we wonder why our male children feel more encouraged to pursue sport than our female children.

If there is an enduring social standard that two children of the same age from the same home consistently have differing levels of access to a sport, then one child has a head start.

This advantage impacts a boy’s perception of how good they are compared to their female peers. And it also impacts how girls perceive themselves. They will rate their competence compared to boys, not realising they didn’t start on a level playing field and are still not on one.

Their confidence levels are affected, impacting on their desire to continue with sport.

The all-girls setting allows girls gain confidence and learn skills in a less pressured environment. Observing girls in a school setting, particularly in competitive activities, has also allowed me to see a different perspective to my own experiences of sport.

I notice the majority of girls are much more sensitive about their ability to execute a physical task. They need to feel almost exceptional at the task in order to perform in front of others, and particularly in front of boys.

This hyper-awareness many girls seem to experience is a deterrent from becoming fitter and healthy. Unlike myself, their worries or self-consciousness outweigh their desire to partake.

I welcome the changing perceptions of women in recent years. I love that “strength is the new skinny”. Strength and muscle tone has begun to be a revered feminine characteristic.

We must continue to encourage small positive changes and tackle some of the wider social issues contributing to these statistics.

Let’s begin by ending our assumptions that a child born to a particular gender has their sporting path already etched out without any heed to their abilities or desires. Let’s give children choices.

Let’s encourage all children to be active and partake in a variety of physical activities. Let’s ensure that physical education lessons and schoolyard activities encourage rather than deter participation. Let’s make the experiences as positive as we can.

Let’s emphasise and encourage participation and skill development at a young age that improves physical literacy. Let’s not put all the weight on winning, sacrificing all the benefits that the person could gain from involvement.

Let’s make it attractive to girls to be active.

Let’s shift the expectation that girls drop out and make it unacceptable not to have an active lifestyle.

Let’s bring our children to both male and female sports games and instill in them an appreciation of all athletes, male and female.

Let’s turn on the TV to RTÉ (Sunday, 1pm) when the Women’s Rugby Six Nations is on, let’s introduce children to female role models.

Let’s make women competing and excelling at sports the norm and let’s see athletes as athletes, not as genders.

Just like the boys in my school saw me — just another child who wanted to play.


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