The benefits of sports for people are well-known. For girls, sports is an activity that can teach them commitment, how to concentrate under stress, how to relax, set and achieve goals, respect others, accept responsibility and failure, and how to be both gracious winners and losers. Extensive research has shown that physical activity and sport enhance girls’ and young women’s mental, psychological, and spiritual health in numerous ways. They have better health, fewer chronic illnesses, higher body esteem, reduced risk of obesity, healthier periods, stronger bones, and reduced cigarette and drug use.
Playing sports also helps girls do better in school, helping them be more organized and responsible. Because of sports, girls’ social life is enhanced, and community involvement is increased. Sports help girls in their careers, too. Playing sports allows them to develop leadership skills, self-reliance, and self-discipline. It teaches them to function as part of a team and work under pressure. Most important of all, sports help girls emotionally and psychologically. They tend to have a healthier view of life and themselves. They have higher self-esteem, better self-image, more self-confidence, and lower rates of depression and risk of suicide. And yet, girls and women confront challenges both in sport and life that limit their potential.
Several studies have shown that despite formal guarantees of equality, the overall progress rate for girls, particularly those from impoverished communities, has been slow. While the forms of inequality may vary, girls are deprived of equal access to resources, opportunities, and power in sport (and otherwise) in every world region.
Reaching out to girls in their adolescent period is vital to confronting these issues. Inequalities of all types increase for girls during their period of adolescence. They experience restrictions while their male counterparts enjoy autonomy, mobility, and power. Naturally, all of this affects their mental health.
Constraining Women in Sport
The positive outcomes of sport for women are constrained by gender-based discrimination in all areas and at all levels of sport and physical activity, fuelled by continuing stereotypes of girls’ physical abilities and social roles. They are often segregated into different types of sports, competitions, and events specifically targeted at women. The value placed on women’s sports is lower, resulting in fewer resources and unequal wages and prizes. In the media, women’s sport is marginalized and often presented to reinforce gender stereotypes.
However, these are not the only challenges girls can face in sports. In today’s society, girls grow up looking at photoshopped or highly edited images of models, thinking that this is the ideal body shape they should have. They are growing up in a society where such unrealistic bodies are idolized every day in magazines, on tv, on social media, etc. This affects girls all over the world, but it has the most significant impact on female athletes.
This also affects the girls’ involvement in sports. When young girls are exposed to these stereotypes of perfect body shapes, it can cause long and lasting problems in how they view their bodies. Such issues can cause long-term mental health issues to young, impressionable girls. For example, it can lead them to not being confident and comfortable in their bodies and certain environments. It can lead to mental and physical struggles that can impact their lives on a grander scale, and yet, there are still many ways we, as a society, can help them view themselves more healthily and lead fulfilling happy lives.
For too long, societal beauty ideals have affected millions of girls worldwide. For example, statistics show that around 70% of girls aged 18 to 30 don’t like their bodies, while 80% of girls start thinking they are too fat by the age of ten. These body issues can negatively impact mental health and lead to depression, eating disorders, anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems. This eventually affects their involvement in sports.
For instance, not feeling skinny enough for social standards can lead to such unhealthy habits as eating disorders. The most common types of eating disorders seen in girls are bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating. However, when an athlete develops one of these disorders, it can lead to severe problems and endanger their sports career. Yet, this is a common issue among female athletes.
Mental health disorders also have strong correlations with poor physical health. If an athlete thinks that she is not strong, pretty, or skinny enough, she might take unhealthy steps to change her physical appearance. Having exaggerated insecurities due to societal expectations can permanently damage their mental health and self-confidence. They are also what hurts their ability to excel to their maximum potential in life.
Sports Need to do More for Girls Mental Health
For decades, girls were told to ‘toughen up and win,’ to ‘get it done no matter what.’ Many female athletes have shown us that they can face challenges, and we didn’t think much of it. But, when tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open and after the gymnast, Simone Biles pulled out from the team to protect her mental health, the issue finally came back to public focus.
However, when Naomi Osaka first said that she would not participate in the French Open interviews to take care of her mental health, she was faced with the backlash of the tournament organizers. The Grand Slam fined her $15,000 for boycotting the post-match conference, and she was also threatened with expulsion from Roland Garros. When she publicly expressed her long-lasting struggles with depression that the tennis authorities admitted they needed to do more for athletes.
By going public with their mental health issues, Biles and Osaka have joined other athletes in a conversation that was considered taboo in sports for too long. American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson has spoken about the mental health problems she had as she prepared for the Olympics, stating she had to mask the pain of her mother’s death while facing the pressures of winning the 100 meters race. An Australian WNBA player, Liz Cambage, had to pull out of the Olympics because of anxiety from entering a COVID bubble in Tokyo that would keep her away from her friends and family support.
Breaking the Taboo
The increased scrutiny and the pressure female athletes face daily need to be challenged with a healthier approach. So what can we do to help girls and young women feel confident in themselves and be healthy athletes? Idolizing specific body types shouldn’t be at the top of the list. Instead, we should worship women who are strong, intelligent, independent, and talented.
We should focus from a model’s look to their healthy, strong appearances, personality, and accomplishments. We should promote flaws, positively deal with mental health issues, and encourage them to become fitter and healthier. We need to teach girls that their bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that it is up to them to become healthy and fit in their own way.
Female athletes should be the models for girls to look up to. And even if later in life they choose not to be an athlete, we still need to teach them the importance of taking care of their mental and physical health. Female athletes can be more than just role models for the sport they play. They can also teach girls how important it is to be committed, healthy, intelligent, brave, a leader, and most importantly, not to be afraid to break society’s taboos for women worldwide.
Sport provides an ideal setting to change social norms, culture, and attitudes to advance the equality and status of girls. The World Happiness Foundation has always been an advocate for women’s rights, understanding women’s value in society, including sports. We aim to build a culture of respect and work with individuals and organizations who seek to increase the profile of women’s sport and promote their participation. We welcome innovative ideas and initiatives from everyone who wishes to help us deliver this important initiative. If you feel like one of such people, be free to join us.
Read part 3 (The Importance of Reconnection for Girls) of the Series on Mental Health and Girls / Women