When you go to a mall and cannot find a single pair of pants that fit you—that’s when you know you are too “big” in our society. Every time you go out to buy clothes, you get a constant reminder: “YOU ARE TOO BIG!” Having played hockey since I was young, I have had many of these experiences. I don’t know how many times I teared up in a fitting room not being able to fit into any of the clothes that I brought in. Online shopping? That’s not an option. I just end up returning 99% of the clothes that I’ve ordered. If you are like me, don’t worry about it. You are not alone in feeling that way. Many female college athletes struggle to find clothes that fit their muscular bodies and constantly receive the message that they are different from other “normal” women (Krane et al. 2004). Sadly, this is not the only negative experience that women who participate in sports go through.
As female athletes, we have to play two seemingly incompatible roles, as a woman and as an athlete. In our society, individuals who fail to perform gender appropriately are considered not competent or inferior (West & Zimmerman 1987). Therefore, to be accepted as competent women, we have to show traditionally feminine characteristics, such as being emotional, gentle, and passive. On the other hand, being successful athletes requires engaging in intense training and adopting more competitive and aggressive attitudes that are traditionally considered masculine characteristics (Krane 2001). Consequently, many female athletes struggle to balance the two sets of conflicting characteristics: traditional femininity and athleticism.
If we fail to show feminine characteristics, we face serious consequences, which can negatively impact our athletic performance. For instance, female athletes who appear masculine are more likely to suffer from verbal harassment by spectators. This can psychologically affect the athletes, which in turn, can affect their performance. Moreover, officials or judges favor female athletes who are more explicitly feminine (Kolnes 1995). This, unlike the spectator example, can directly influence the results of thier games. Given the indirect and direct effects of gender performance on athletic performance, we have to go out of our way to exhibit feminine characteristics.
It is not easy being female athletes and having to play the two incompatible roles at once. But because it is so difficult, we gain so much from it. Strength, self-esteem, independence, and pride—these are all characteristics that the college students in Krane et al. (2004) said they gained through their participation in sports. They even said that they were empowered by committing themselves to playing sports.
So next time you feel overwhelmed by the pressure of being female athletes, just remember three things:
- You are not fighting alone. There are many female athletes struggling like you.
- By playing sports and going through many hardships, you will become strong, confident, independent, and proud of yourself.
- Most importantly, the very fact that you participate in sports challenges the current restricted definition of femininity (Krane 2001). You are playing an important role in freeing women from the narrow gender norms!