I remember seeing a Nike ad when I was little girl that carried the tagline "If You Let Me Play" and the premise was that girls who were allowed to play sports would grow up with more confidence, social skills, etc. I couldn't shake the ad. I thought about it all the time.
I was roughly six or seven years old and I had been playing hockey and baseball for a couple of years already. What I couldn't get out of my head was how I never thought of it as someone "letting me" play sports. In my six or seven-year-old mind, it was more of a "who's going to stop me" situation.
I was good, better than most of the boys. At that age it wasn't about scholarships, or professional scouts and prospects. It was about going out with friends and playing hockey, no more and no less. It wasn't until I hit about 12 or 13 that gender began to be a consideration.
Don't get me wrong -- I faced sexism in my rec sports years, both placed upon me and from my own deflections outward. The inner turmoil in high school of how being a "jock" would affect my image at school. The special "lady tees" type treatment on the ice/field, and of course having coaches treat me differently than the rest of the team due to misconceived stereotypes about girls' "emotional stability."
Once we get past the actual physical play, and we become voyeurs, what does gender have anything to do with it?
What didn't change for me was that it remained just going out with friends and playing hockey, no more and no less. Unfortunately, I don't think this is the mindset that the majority of female athletes are taught throughout their journey in athletics. It is the tiny nuances that reinforce that idea that a little girl's experience playing rec hockey should be different from a little boy's.
An example I think about often happened about six months ago when a fairly large Canadian sports publisher tweeted out something along the lines of wanting to appeal to more to female sports fans, and asked for advice from their female followers. Why am I a "female sports fan" but a male isn't a male sports fan, they are just a sports fan? Why is it different for me to sit on my couch cheering on my favourite team than a male doing the exact same thing? Once we get past the actual physical play, and we become voyeurs, what does gender have anything to do with it?
Another example is the marketing tactic of all this pink sports equipment. Some girls like pink, so do some boys, that's great. But initially most hockey equipment such as gloves, skates, etc., were made black because the leather stood up better to the rough play the less it was treated. Black also showed less puck scuffs etc. Black wasn't chosen because sports were predominantly played by males and males like black. Gender colour considerations played no role. So now that there is a growing female hockey-playing demographic, why are retailers going out of their way to bring gender stereotypes into it?
Well, they do it because of supply and demand. Girls are socially ingrained to choose a more feminine colour when given the option. But what is actually happening is that we are telling girls that they are different. Their hockey experience is different from the boys. It's not just about learning to use your edges, or that a good wrist shot takes practice. We are telling little girls that fashion and appearance is a priority for them while playing sports.
I don't blame the retailers -- they are just out to make money. Until the NHL, MLB, etc., become not-for-profit organizations, organized sports from tyke leagues to the big leagues will continue to be be treated as a business.
Business will always benefit from more demand, and more demand would come from a declining attrition rate in female athletes. So maybe instead of fulfilling the hegemonic ideal that women are different and should have different focuses than men, with questions like "who will let me?" or colour-coding equipment by gender, we could try to promote questions like "how do I work on my cross-overs to improve my defensive zone break-out?"
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