IWD 16: Why re-defining ‘Ladylike’ could be the key to keeping our girls in sport.

A couple of months ago, I was on the treadmill at the gym with a school group on the equipment in front of me. They were all high-school age, a mix of boys and girls on various cardio equipment under supervision. What unfolded in front of me made the penny drop in my never-ending quest to keep women and girls in sport. Watching them warm up and progress into the session, there was a clear distinction between what the girls were up to and what the boys were up to. While the boys were jogging, running and beginning to exert effort with abandon, the girls were ALL walking slowly, pulling at their shirts, fixing their hair, and talking about what the others were doing whilst looking around to see who was watching them. It took every bit of my will not to go up to the girls and yell “screw what your hair looks like or what you’re shirt is doing – run! Train hard! Sweat! Enjoy being strong!”

It suddenly all made sense. It was the curse of ‘Ladylike’ in action, right before my eyes, in real life. The teenage girls in front of me became toddlers and preschoolers, and I could hear the statements loud and clear:

“Don’t sit like that, thats not ladylike.”

“Don’t climb that tree, thats not ladylike.”

“Don’t get all hot, sweaty and messy, thats not very ladylike.”

“Don’t do that, you have a dress on and thats not ladylike.”

“Girls don’t play those games.”

On the eve of International Women’s Day, the Australian Sports Commission’s ‘Clearinghouse for Sport’ has featured a piece highlighting current research trends, insights and initiatives that are working to answer that question of why less girls and women are involved in sport. Across the varying research, there appears to be a host of common factors related to a female’s reasoning for not participating in regular sport. An overwhelming majority of studies featured these three key factors:

  1. Gender-based attitudes towards sports (World Health Organisation 2005)
  2. Body image, personal safety, parental and adult influence on young girls (Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, 2008);
  3. Stereo-typed beliefs and values about the appropriateness of female participation in sport (Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity 2012).

If we ever needed a bigger motivation to re-think our concepts of ‘ladylike’ and understand the critical role we play in doing so, then there it is, staring us right in the face – and me on the gym floor while I watched those young girls hold back from full effort and opt to fix their hair instead.

Now some of you may wonder why I always bang on about keeping girls in sport and why I feel it is so important from a body confidence/body positivity perspective. Here it is: the longer we keep girls in sport, the better chance they have of starting to tune in and understand their bodies from a functional perspective. They develop an appreciation for what they can achieve physically vs what they look like. The longer we keep them training for function and performance, the better chances we have of them not wanting to do a ‘9 week bikini booty challenge’, and the longer we can keep them out of potentially toxic fitness environments at such a crucial time in their self-development.

So that being said, what does ‘ladylike’ have to do with it?

Lots. Loads. Too much for my liking.

Firstly, extreme physical effort is not culturally considered very ‘ladylike’; so we can try hard, but according to media representations, it appears important that its not to the point where we become beet-red, stink with sweat and lose our ability to pout. You know those exhales you’re doing in the big lifts or efforts when a bit of spit comes out? Yeah, those. Thats not very ladylike you know. And FFS don’t get your hair stuck in your sweat, thats just messy.

And please don’t make noises while you’re lifting or working to exertion – for one, you’re not supposed to be lifting that much because you’ll (gasp) GET BIG, and really its just not very ladylike to train that hard – I mean, what for anyway?

How about when you’re in the zone with your game-face on and it suddenly gets labelled as ‘resting bitch face?’ For goodness sakes, pout, look wistful or smile, but please don’t show that much determination or aggression, its just not ladylike.

When was the last time you climbed a tree, jumped a fence or kicked a footy? Rolled down a hill and got covered in dirt and grass stains? What about a bushy snort (ejecting snot from one’s nostril whilst on the move like a pro)? When was the last time mid-ride/run you had to do one of those? I think we’re getting the gist of what I am saying here.

The reality is that full-tilt physical exertion isn’t what we align with  conventional concepts of ‘pretty’ or ‘ladylike’, so whilst we have been encouraged to undertake physical activity from a fear of inactivity position, we have essentially  had a limit placed on the effort levels that it should be done at. Until now.

Personally I feel that we are in a really great position to change what our younger generations of females associate with concepts such as ‘ladylike’. Many women, including myself are actively shunning the obligations associated with traditionally feminine behaviour when it comes to physical activity and sport. We are lifting heavier, training harder, embracing larger physiques and actively making an effort to be more fearless when it comes to undertaking physical activity. We just need to get more of us doing it more often.

We are in a great position to essentially re-define the concept of ‘ladylike’, or to eradicate the concept completely from our vocabularies. Whichever one we choose, some form of effort on our behalf is necessary. But it can’t be just in words – it needs to be demonstrated physically through our own fearless pursuits. Our daughters, granddaughters, nieces and younger females need to see us training hard for our chosen sports, and/or enjoying physical activity with reckless abandon. We need to be the ones climbing up the trees, rolling on the grass, diving into the surf, tackling with the footy or hitting the home-runs. We need to just ‘do’ so that our younger generations know no different.

So tomorrow on International Women’s Day, lets train harder, sweat more, lift heavier, make all the noises and do the big spitty efforts – because THAT’S #thenewladylike.





3 thoughts on “IWD 16: Why re-defining ‘Ladylike’ could be the key to keeping our girls in sport.

  1. Excellent article Leah! So much yes! I’ve been examining my own discomfort with the term ‘ladylike’ lately as my little girl is 3 and someone recently told her to sit differently because it wasn’t very ‘ladylike’. I thought “who cares how she’s sitting – she’s 3?!” I want her to run, jump and get dirty as long as possible because I remember the strait jacket that was always thinking about staying neat and tidy as a little girl – and the horror of looking ‘not pretty’ when doing sport at school. I’ve just realised I need to educate myself about cricket and other sports and watch them with enthusiasm and some knowledge – because my little girl mirrors almost everything I do and I’d really like her to become interested in sport. Right now I love that she is copying me running and doing yoga at home. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Leah. It is not just about some women, it is about all of us. It’s about trying to keep us contained. And some of the pressure to stay contained comes from fellow women.

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