How body-shaming leads most girls to quit sports

We have a lot of silly beliefs about the differences between girls and boys.

Like the idea that for some innate reason boys like sports more than girls. When you really think about it, such a belief is nonsense. How could it possibly be true that girls are hardwired differently or have something in their DNA that makes them enjoy sports less?

Unfortunately, it’s currently true that far fewer girls play sports than boys. Girls are more likely to quit sports as they grow older, and as a result, are underrepresented at every level, from players and coaches to officials and administrators.

Even worse, it’s true that girls enjoy sports less. Oftentimes, they feel more anxious than boys do while playing sports and that anxiety makes playing less fun.

But none of this proves these differences are innate or unavoidable. Just because it’s currently true that girls enjoy sports less and are more likely to quit, doesn’t mean that it has to be this way. It certainly doesn’t mean that it should.

What it means is that, instead of offering up a silly belief about the difference between boys and girls, we need to better understand why.

Thankfully, someone is doing just that.  

Dr. Catherine Sabiston of the University of Toronto is currently investigating this very question.

In particular, she’s interested in learning more about the role body image and self-conscious emotions like guilt, shame, and pride play in the sport participation of teen girls.

Could it be that girls are less likely to enjoy sports and more likely to quit because they feel guilty or ashamed of their body? Could it be that girls who feel proud of their bodies are more likely to enjoy sports and are more committed to continuing to play?

Though her research is still ongoing, the preliminary survey results show that the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. When girls feel guilty and ashamed, they experience more anxiety, enjoy sport less, and are more likely to quit. When girls are proud of their bodies, they enjoy sport more and are less likely to drop out.

The surprising part

This research has also uncovered something that might surprise you. While it’s true that social media, television, magazines, and peers all contribute to body image concerns, 61% of the comments that adolescent girls hear about their weight and body actually come from parents.

It’s become common to talk about girls’ bodies in a negative way and it’s leading them to quit sports.

We need to change the conversation. We need to focus on girls’ abilities instead of their bodies. We need to focus on what their bodies can do, not what they look like.

We need to stop commenting on bodies altogether—our kids’ bodies, our own bodies, or anyone else’s.

We need to create an environment where girls feel supported and encouraged and proud of what they’re able to do.

We need to make playing sports accepted and expected for girls, just like it is for boys.

And, most of all, we need to let go of the belief that girls like sports less than boys for some unavoidable reason. One of the big reasons is body image, and that’s entirely within our control.