Her Life Depends On It

Young relay runner at the starting line.Here's something I learned today: Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician in the U.S., gave a series of lectures in 1859 that emphasized the importance of physical activity in the lives of girls-going so far as to define the first law of life as the law of exercise. Blackwell argued that a society that neglects that activity of girls-or, as the case may be, provides obstacles to it-denies girls "both happiness and life well lived."

It's 150 years later, and still, the freedom of American girls and women to live active, strong, healthy lives is still not on par with their male counterparts. Luckily, we have
another strong voice that is taking on Blackwell's legacy by taking the physicality of females seriously.

Public health is defined by the U.S. Institute of Medicine as the collective actions undertaken by a society "to assure the conditions for people to be healthy." And now, the Women's Sports Foundation (which is, incidentally, badass) is taking it upon itself to elevate how those conditions uniquely impact American women and girls.

The organization released a report this month called, "Her Life Depends On It II: Sports, Physical Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls and Women." It is an expansion and update of the original "Her Life Depends On It" report from five years ago ... and it's well worth your attention.

"Her Life Depends On It II" takes the well-being and physicality of girls and women seriously in its evaluation of how their engagement in "moderate and consistent levels of physical activity and sport ... is essential to good health and well-being." As well, physically active girls and women are more likely to do well in academics.

Sounds like a no brainer? Maybe. But here's what especially stands out: #35 for the Atlanta Dream goes for the basket in a WNBA game

The report makes no assumptions about body size/shape and physical activity/health. This is an enormous relief in context of so much socio-cultural whining about 'the obesity epidemic,' which presumes that heavier people are less active and healthy than their slim counterparts-a presumption so faulty (and so well back-slapped by people like Kate Harding) that we simply must put it to bed. "Her Life Depends On It II" is a stand-out example of how we can finally - finally! - push the public conversation beyond the facile distractions of body size and get on with something more nuanced and interesting - like the possibilities, potential, and barriers for females of all ages to be physically active in America.

As "Her Life Depends On It" makes clear in its very title, the stakes are high. This is our very bodies we're talking about. Our movement. The length of our lives. Our likelihood of being sick or being strong.

While some of this is within our direct control (I've written before of Natalie Angier's wonderful call for women to get moving and to embrace their muscularity), we're also dealing with serious and deep societal structures that inhibit the health of our bodies.

Consider this small sampling of the report's findings:

  • The report indicates that poorer females and females of color "engage less in physical activity, have less access to sport and physical fitness programs, and suffer negative health consequences as a result."
  • "Gender conscious approaches to physical training and conditioning for female athletes help to reduce the likelihood of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries and concussions." So what's stopping trainers and conditioners from getting on board?
  • "Despite this ever-expanding body of research, in general girls are still not afforded the degree of encouragement or opportunity extended to boys to participate in sports and fitness activities."
  • "Impediments to access remain an ongoing concern, complicated by recent trends that run counter to promoting physical activity, fitness, and sport programs in schools and communities. With schools cutting back on recess, a de-emphasis on physical education nationally, and persistent inequalities in school-sport programs and community-recreation programs, girls and women continue to encounter structural barriers to participation."
  • "Urban girls, especially girls of color, often face unique barriers to participation. Many have jobs to supplement family incomes, while others take care of siblings at home."a swing and a miss at the Little League World Series
  • "In general, boys overestimate their interest in sport while girls underestimate their interest. Of the children in grades three through eight described as non-athletes, 42% of boys indicated that "sports are a big part of who they are" compared with 16% of girls."
  • "As girls get older they are less likely to engage in high rates of physical activity (five days or more a week), while more boys remain highly involved with physical activity from childhood through high school.... The steepest decline in physical activity is seen among Asian girls as they move into their high school years."
  • While females are 50 percent of the high school student population, female athletes have access to only 41.1 percent of athletic opportunities; male athletes have access to 58.8% of athletic opportunities. That translates into 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play than their male counterparts. This rate has been on the decrease since the 2003-04 school year.
  • "In one softball league for girls in the largely Dominican Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood, child-care responsibilities were a significant issue in reduced athletic participation for girls, along with an increasing lack of parental support as girls grew older."
  • "Boston boys participate in about 50% more sports and physical activity programs than do girls."
  • "The majority of youth programs and drop-in centers for older children and adolescents have male-oriented, if not male-dominated, cultures. Although they are welcome and some sports activity is co-ed, girls sometimes feel marginalized."
  • "Some gender-associated constraints to physical activity for girls include lack of role models, social pressures, body image issues and fewer sports choices. Girls also lack parental encouragement, a significant factor because reportedly they rely on such encouragement more than boys."
  • "Girls sometimes feel less safe in public recreation spaces and use those spaces more for social than for physical purposes, including watching boys play sports."
  • "Substantial declines in physical activity occur during adolescence in girls and are greater in African-American girls than in white girls. One study of 1,213 African-American girls and 1,166 white girls conducted over 10 years from the time the girls were 9 or 10 to the ages of 18 or 19 years found a 100% decline for African-American girls and a 64% decline for white girls. By the age of 16 or 17 years, 56% of the African-American girls and 31% of the white girls reported no habitual leisure-time activity than female students (14.7%) to have attended a daily PE class ."
  • Women racing in the 1910s at the University of Wisconsin at Madison"The average NCAA member institution provided 232 athletic opportunities to males compared to 168 athletic opportunities for females."
  • "Within the average NCAA Division I athletic department in 2005–06, male athletes received 55% ($2,175,200) of the scholarship money available while women received 45% ($1,799,000) of those funds."
  • "During the 2005–06 academic year, NCAA Division I athletic departments devoted 68% ($247,300) of available recruiting dollars to male athletes compared with the 32% ($115,900) allocated to recruit female athletes."
  •  "In one of the few studies focused on this area, only 10% of the 423 high school athletic directors surveyed were female. When the male and female directors were given opportunities to apply for promotions to the position of athletic director, the females were as successful as their male counterparts ... However, the question of when those opportunities arise is important. In many instances, the position of athletic director was paired with the position of head football coach. In those circumstances, women were not likely apply. This is borne out in a study of 301 job advertisements. Of those positions advertised, 73% (220) required the applicant to coach a boys' sport, predominantly football (94%)."
  • "In 1972, 90% of all the coaches of women's college and university athletic teams were women. By 2008 women represented 42.8% of head coaches of NCAA women's sports teams ... For 30 years, the percentage of women coaching men's intercollegiate teams remained under 2% ... Between 2004 and 2008, there was a slight up-tick with 2 to 3% of men's teams being coached by women (Acosta & Carpenter, 2008).Women administrators directed 90% of women's intercollegiate sports programs in 1972, compared with only 21.3% of such programs in 2007-2008 ..."
  • "Regarding hiring of women in college sport, 83 to 84% of the female administrators in the 2007- 2008 NCAA study agreed that there was gender discrimination in athletics administration specifically and in athletics in general ... "
  • Nearly 90% of all coaches of women's team were white.
  • "African-American women and men held a combined 13.6% of head coaching positions in Division I basketball (10.7% and 2.9% respectively). ... this figure contrasts sharply with the 47.4% of African-American women who played college basketball."

II Torneio Nordestino de Rugby 7-a-side by Tiago Celestino.Other interesting facts from the report: Since the passage of Title IV in 1972, participation of girls in varsity sports has increased an astounding 1000 percent. The popular sports for girls? Basketball, outdoor track & field, volleyball, fast-pitch softball, and soccer. For college athletes, 26,000 more women participated in sports in 2004-05 than in 1995-96.

As the report indicates, such amazing growth should belie any prehistoric ideas of biological determinism factoring into girls 'just not being as interested in sports' as boys, these kind of presumptions are nonetheless passed on by our what we leave out of our conversations about participation in sports ... and by what we communicate with such deep-seeded biases in our culture of physical activity.

I urge you to check out the full story in "Her Life Depends On It II." It's an appealing and easy-to-read report that's definitely worth pursuing. Admirably, the report doesn't stagnate in the position of urging the conscious shaping of conditions to facilitate more physically active girls and women; it also examines issues that female athletes uniquely face, including eating disorders, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis, and sports that can complicate body image (like competitive cheer and dance).

About the Images: 

1. A young relay runner at the starting line. Via Creative Commons, birframes.

2. Angel McCaughtry, #35 of the Atlanta Dream, goes for the basket in a WNBA game. Via the WNBA.

3. A swing and a miss at the Little League World Series. Via Creative Commons, Old Sarge.

4. Women racing in the 1910s at the University of Wisconsn at Madison. Via UW - Madison's awesome site on the history of women playing sports at the college.

5. A rugby game on fire. Via Creative Commons, Tiago Celestino.

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