“Like a girl”

* update – read this about a 12 year-old Little League baseball player *


A few years ago, I was ploughing up and down the pool. It was close to closing time and I was putting in my mile-a-night lengths.  As I turned, I saw a girl preparing to enter the lane next to me. She was around thirteen or fourteen, the same age as my daughter. She was at the neighbouring school, so we knew of her. And as I returned to my steady progress, the shock wave hit me. Sky Draper had just swum past me, with a power and determination that seemed impossible from a still slight body. She swims like a girl – and much more.

Sky is an inspirational triathlete, perhaps all the more so as she has, like my daughter, recently developed Type I diabetes. But she isn’t simply a symbol; there’s more to her than that. I like what she says about her comeback and about herself:

The most important message the narrative gives us is hope; which in my eyes is the most important concept we cling to as humans … I’ve made a heck of a lot of mistakes, and yet learned from them to an unquantifiable extent … I have no regrets about taking time for myself … Sport is what I do. It’s not who I am.

You can read more about her here.


I remember my daughter’s first parents evening at the very beginning of Year 7. A mother spoke up, asking how her daughter’s homework could fit around her exacting gymnastics regime.  The girl managed somehow, and walked on the stage last week, a little while before my own daughter, to receive her prize at their final Speech Day. But now she’s not just a gymnast: Jess Gordon Brown is also an inspiration, winning gold in her category in the national schools Judo championships. She fights like a girl.


Finally, on two occasions I have had to fight to regain my ability to walk, involving a long rehabilitation, painful physiotherapy and endless hours at the gym after rupturing my patellar tendon. I needed something to inspire me.

The first time round, I received it from Dame Ellen MacArthur who was, at the time, completing her amazing Vendee Globe success. Seeing her struggling against anything that nature could throw at her got me out of my chair and back on my feet.  She sails like a girl.

The second time round, hour after hour on the running machine and cross-trainer, I looked up at an enormous poster covering most of the wall of the gym: Dame Kelly Holmes, winner of two gold medals at the Athens Olympics.  And as the stupid, endorphin-triggered grin spread across my face, I kept my eyes up towards Kelly. She runs like a girl.


If you’ve noticed the repetitive theme, you may be interested to watch this video, which (while produced for overtly commercial purposes) shows how and why the expression “like a girl” must mean no less and no more than “like a boy”.

I am a swimming teacher, specialising in stroke development. I notice that in the squads of eight, nine, ten and eleven year-olds, the girls are powerful, fast, determined winners. Boys are often behind them.  Then something physiological happens: that’s natural. More importantly, something psychological can happen – or perhaps social. Some girls begin to doubt they can make it. They begin to question the power of their own bodies. They may worry about what exercise is doing to them. Our job, my coach told me, was to help them over that hump, to keep them believing in themselves until their bodies could confirm that they were as good as they could be.

I wince when I hear adults talking with concern about girls developing “swimmer’s shoulders” or getting too muscular. Girls don’t need to hear that. Speaking to Jane Gordon in 2007, Emma Watson expressed this powerfully:

It drives me nuts when friends say, ‘We can’t continue because sport gives you muscles and it’s so unattractive, and you get sweaty.’ For some reason girls seem to think it is unfeminine and they worry about being ‘pretty’. But I feel the most pretty when I come off the pitch after a hockey game and I have got pink cheeks and bright eyes. Sport really makes me feel good about myself.

I cringed when I heard Sports Minister Helen Grant suggest that women who feel “unfeminine” when playing sports such as hockey, tennis and athletics could take up other activities like “ballet, gymnastics, cheerleading and even roller-skating.” Just silly.  Tell Steven McRae or Edward Watson that ballet is feminine. Tell Jess Gordon Brown that gymnastics are uniquely feminine. There’s nothing particularly feminine about the bruising encounters on the roller derby track. And as for cheerleading: just Google a combination of “cheerleaders” and “exploitation”.

The last paragraph of the article by Hannah Betts on the England women’s rugby team says far more for equality and inspiration in sport:

These are not representations of women we see in magazines. Something powerful is happening here – to do with body image and body fact – and that rare thing: something truly beautiful for little girls to aspire to.

Sport is inspiring – and for all of us, not just the ‘stars’. Strong bodies are healthy. And being physically active is good. We mustn’t make half the populations of our classrooms feel as if it isn’t.

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