It was the pimply-faced teenage boys who got my attention first, standing around and gawking and looking overtly goofy as they tried their best to grab the attention of the pretty cheerleaders at the airport newstand, their lipgloss shining, their hair swinging in perfect pony tails, their giggles betraying their, uber girly “I don’t care if they’re looking at me, but really, I do” stances. Typical teenage scene.
And then a team of female football players passed by. It was the team sweatshirt they donned that gave away the fact that they played a sport traditionally reserved for boys—that and maybe their make-up less faces. But really, they were no less cute than the bouncy, dolled-up cheerleaders.
Still, the moment the football-playing girls found themselves in the eye-line of the goofy boys, they became the laughing stock of Orlando International Airport. Not because they were ugly or recognizably stupid or weak or even Tina Fey funny. The contempt and dismissal was, quite obviously, directed at the fact that they were female athletes unabashedly announcing to the world that they play a sport traditionally reserved for manly men.
And seeing as I’d just come back from touring the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney with two amazing female athletes—my daughters Mari, 11, and Lila, 8—the whole scene gave me the shivers. Because really, what was playing out before my eyes, live and in Technicolor, was what I’d always feared for my sporty girls: That their abilities on the field would render them invisible, or worse, laughing stocks of their peers and society at large.
Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I’m talking about: Female athletes get little pay, lesser play and no respect. I mean, really: Name two professional women athletes who get props for being kick-ass at what they do in their respective sports. And eliminate any whose last name is Williams or whose notoriety is based more on their sex appeal than their exceptional abilities on the field or court.
Go ‘head. I’ll wait.
You’re hard-pressed because unless you’re a diehard sports fan, no one pays nearly enough attention to the sport, prowess and athletic accomplishments of female athletes. Not nearly enough, considering the Herculean challenges they face as women who use their bodies for something other than as a playground for men. The empty seats at WNBA games, the empty stadiums at Women’s Soccer games, the popularity of… wait for it… Lingerie Football (seriously—WTF?!) tell the story.
Now granted, we’ve come a long way—this is true. Venus and Serena Williams muscled their way into the heart of tennis and are recognized as probably the most successful female athletes in history. And it’s no longer weird to be a girl with dreams of playing professional basketball or soccer, thanks to Olympic medal-winning athletes like LA Sparks center Lisa Leslie or soccer forward Mia Hamm.
And these days, parents seem to be just as compelled to help their daughters into soccer cleats, swimsuits and tennis outfits as they are tutus and cheerleader skirts. No one pushed me and my friends to play sports when I was a little girl, like, ever, but now that I’m grown, I commune every weekend with an amazing group of parents who stand on the sidelines of the soccer field or sit in the stands at swim meets, cheering on their little girls to push their bodies and work hard and be the best athletes they can be. Because we want them to be healthy. And strong. Maybe bring home a trophy or two. And know that they are capable of anything—from securing a scholarship to play on a leading college team to going to the Olympics to playing professionally to simply enjoying doing and watching something that, for all too long, has been the domain of boys.
Our personal hope is that involving our girls in sports will not only help them stay fit but see what amazing bodies they have—to build up their confidence and trust in and love for them. My Mari, strong and thick and tall, already thinks she can best me in a wrestling match, and my Lila has a swagger to her now that she’s seen firsthand how fast and strong and athletic she is—more so than all the girls and all but one of the boys in her class. Put yourself in those third-grade shoes: If you felt like you were the strongest, fastest, most athletic kid among your peers, how differently would you feel about yourself? How much more confidence would you have in your interaction with boys? What would you be more likely to stand up for? Or better yet, less likely to fall victim to?
Still, a recent ESPN the Magazine story about competitive cheerleading—with girls as young as three slathering make-up across their faces and pouring themselves into short, tight, glitter panty-revealing lycra skirts for competition—gave me pause, particularly at the part where one cheer team owner spit this ridiculousness:
"There's a girly, fun, sleepover, get-dressed-up-ness to it, and at the same time they're really challenged physically and they get to be pushed. For parents who wouldn't want their daughter to do a very unisex sport and miss out on the girliness of other activities, like pageants, this is a good balance."
So… what? Girls can’t be athletes and girly while playing soccer or basketball or running track? Without tight skirts, panties all out for the world to see, in full pageant make-up? At age 5?
I get it: parents want their daughters to be pretty. Nothing wrong with that. If you’re human, you want to maximize your humanness, meaning you want the pretty face and the nice figure. Lord knows, being pretty and girly can get you far in this world. Just ask tennis player Anna Kournikova, who, despite having an empty trophy shelf and questionable skills on the tennis court, managed to be one of the highest-paid female athletes ever.
But at what cost does this come when the parents not only force this on our girls, but, like a bunch of goofy teenage boys, stand around pointing and laughing and turning up their noses at little girls who play sports that don’t involve dress-up and Maybeline? Who make it seem like the female athlete who chooses to wear the cleats or bounce the basketball or race around the track or spike the volleyball or swing the lacrosse stick or don the rugby and hockey gear is somehow less of a woman?
This much I know is true: Society won’t change on this if we parents won’t bother to change—even for our own daughters.
For their sake, we must.