Girl Power?

How will the revolution in women's sports play out for the next generation?

The situation is more dire for girls. According to Physical Activity & Sport in the Lives of Girls, a recent massive report by the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, young females are twice as likely to be inactive as young males, even though, the report notes, "physical activity and sport can help girls weather the storms of adolescence." Indeed, a study by the Women's Sports Foundation shows that girls who participate in sports are less than half as likely to get pregnant as girls who don't.

So why do girls bolt away from the goalposts? According to the clinical psychologist Mary Bray Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, pubescent girls enter a "social and developmental Bermuda Triangle," in which they "lose their assertive, energetic, and 'tomboyish' personalities and become more deferential, self-critical, and depressed" as they seek to conform to abiding feminine stereotypes. When Leslie Heywood— a power lifter and author of the sports memoir Pretty Good for a Girl— has taught seventh- and eighth-graders, they have been eager to flex along as she displays her bulging biceps (Heywood bench-presses 230 pounds) while chanting "Girls Rule!" The girls, says Heywood, "interpret their participation in sports as something that really gives them power."

And in a society that remains profoundly sexist, that may be precisely the problem. As the President's Council report concludes, it's the cultural demands of "heterosexualization" and "emphasized femininity" that shove girls onto the sidelines. "Girls may perceive that it is socially unacceptable to be strong, physical and athletically talented," states the report in language that seems to belong to another era; "this is the very definition of a popular boy."

Shanna Rodriguez gets set to swing like she's squashing a grapefruit.
Carla Gahr
Shanna Rodriguez gets set to swing like she's squashing a grapefruit.

Even in today's rambunctious grrrl culture, being popular with the popular boys remains most girls' paramount concern. Teen magazines are, as ever, filled with chatty advice on how to capture your crush. And while many reflect the women's sports explosion by offering the occasional feature on kickboxing or Mia Hamm, their tips on left jabs and soccer passes are surrounded by elaborate coaching on hairstyling, makeup application, and wardrobe selection. Nike may advertise in Seventeen, but with an image of a little girl puckering rouged lips into a hand mirror. The ad copy asks, "When do we start so desperately wanting to be someone else?" but the visual image it means to mock speaks louder because it so resembles every other page of the magazine. Often, what passes for sports pages are peppy instructions on how to achieve a buff butt and trim thighs.

The world of women's and girls' sports itself has not gone far enough, experts say, to counteract these cultural imperatives, and sometimes it even reinforces them. Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, at the University of Minnesota, talks about the "ponytail factor": The reluctance of female athletes to wear their hair short reveals the persistent pressure to "compensate" for their strength as athletes. "The minute you walk off the court," she explains, "you can literally and figuratively let your hair down and demonstrate for everyone that you are still legitimate as a woman." Sports manufacturers read the cultural contradictions well, as capital always does: They are marketing special batting helmets for girls that have holes in the back for ponytails. And even as pro women athletes are beginning to win endorsement contracts, they're more likely to be seen on TV peddling shampoo than the sports equipment and energy bars that male athletes endorse.

At other levels, too, girls are getting mixed messages in their experiences of sports. Penny Rosario, 28, who played softball for Puerto Rico in the 1996 Olympics, now offers clinics and personal coaching to girls throughout Rockland and Westchester counties and other parts of suburban New York. "One of the main things I try to teach them is aggression," she says, explaining that girls are too often steered away from that all-important athletic hunger. In batting practice, for example, girls are frequently taught to "just make contact," and that sort of advice, says Rosario, "leads to bad habits, with girls taking half-swings." She coaches girls to think that they're "squashing a grapefruit" when they take a swing.

Women's sports scholars and advocates remain optimistic. "Right now the dinosaurs still rule," says Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "There are pressures in the system that are anachronistic, and it's going to take another 10 to 20 years before that stuff is weeded out." Adds the Tucker Center's Kane: "Women's sports has not failed as a social movement. It has infiltrated the culture enough to begin to transform it in a liberal way, to demand women's and girls' fair share, though that is not yet complete. It has not yet infiltrated the culture more radically to alter fundamentally what it means to be female. But then that's the slow nature of social movements. Compared to Jim Crow laws and slavery, our culture is a lot better off, but we have hardly achieved a fundamental transformation of racism."

Some girls, though, can't wait for the movement to lumber ahead. Kids involved in the teen chat program ONtheLINE are about to launch a Web site called to provoke a national conversation among female high school athletes. There they will post training diaries, get info on college recruiting, exchange opinions and stories. "There just aren't any sites that focus on girls' sports," says Kris Bonpadre, an eighth-grader from Philadelphia who is helping to develop the site. "We need a space where if you want to talk about sports, it can really be about sports and not the other things the girls' sites concentrate on."

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