I want to address an understated form of sexism that still pervades our classes at LOHS. Before I begin, though, I want to first make a few things clear. Personally, my experiences throughout grade school with gender-based discrimination have been extremely limited. I’m very grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been offered within this school district, and only in exceptionally rare instances have I ever felt disadvantaged due to my gender. With that out of the way, one of those few occurrences was in the high school gym class I took last semester — and I have a hunch I’m not the only one in my class who’s felt the same.
Being a girl in a Lifetime Sports class is a bit odd.
When the course first started in August, I didn’t really notice that anything was off. Our first unit of the year was ultimate frisbee, and as my class had very few girls in it, I was the only female on my team. Several of the boys in my first group played football together, so I didn’t find it too weird when they mainly passed to one another. After all, they were already familiar with each others’ playing styles and strengths; plus, football and ultimate frisbee are similar enough sports. When some of the other girls in my class began to complain in the locker room about the boys on their teams were excluding them from gameplay, I’ll be honest, I noted their protests with a reasonable amount of skepticism. Maybe the guys on your team happen to be teammates, too, I thought. Why are you taking it so personally? Alternatively: Maybe you’re just not trying hard enough.
I feel bad about mentally brushing them off now, because it didn’t take me too long to realize that those justifications — while perhaps also factors — were not the whole cause. There was something else there. Teams continued to be shuffled throughout the semester, and an obvious pattern began to emerge. During games that involved the whole class, whenever I (or another girl) stood unguarded in a great position to move the ball or score, the gaze of our teammates would slip over us blankly. They’d look around desperately in search of someone to pass to they knew they could trust, and in most every case, that someone happened to be a male. This led to droves of girls wandering aimlessly around the center of the field or court as they were transformed into onlookers rather than players.
This type of exclusion was cyclical. When you’re actively discluded from activities, your effort level in said activities tends to drop exponentially. And when your effort level drops, you’re even less likely than before to be considered as an important member of the team.
What fueled this type of discriminatory behavior to begin with? I certainly don’t believe it was malicious intent. I think gym class is exclusionary by design because athletics as a whole are exclusionary. Speed, strength, coordination and sports IQ are the primary traits you need to be successful in athletics, and if you don’t possess most or all of these, then you most likely won’t be. It’s easy to see why this exclusionary principle translates over to gym classes such as Lifetime Sports that are centered around competitive, team-based games rather than general fitness.
The connection from competition to exclusion is pretty clear; it’s the elephant in the room. We’ve all heard the infamous statistics: on average, men have more muscle mass than women, which is conducive to increased athletic performance, et cetera et cetera. In spite of this, I’ve seen girls outcompete boys in co-ed sports countless times. Every “rule” has exceptions, and it’s frustrating when people reject this reality in favor of broader generalizations.
I’m not suggesting sexist intentions. I don’t think high schoolers wake up in the morning thinking about how to best exclude the females in their gym class that day. I genuinely believe that people take the class to have fun, and for many, fun is achieved through winning. Thus, because of the sweeping statements I’ve laid out above, girls end up pushed to the side, and that’s a bad thing.
Seeing people for the general characteristics of their “group” rather than their characteristics as individuals causes far more harm than good; it’s a root cause of countless forms of discrimination. It conditions girls to think that because females as a whole may be less athletically inclined, they themselves cannot be athletically inclined. And for those like me who luckily already have a foundation of confidence in their own abilities, it’s just flat-out frustrating.
I define myself as an athlete. I’ve played on a wide range of competitive teams. I trust my own abilities, which is pretty much the only reason that I continued to put effort into my Lifetime Sports class at all. In fact, in small-group situations where my teammates had little choice but to involve me in gameplay, they learned to trust me too. They realized that I could out-run and out-catch a lot of the people in our class, gender aside, despite of what I looked like. Still, the amount of effort and patience it took to get to that point could be infuriating and disheartening at times.
I’m not rejecting physical differences between genders, nor am I labeling anyone as a bad person for wanting to win. I’m certainly not calling anyone in my class out in particular (if you’re reading, hi guys) because again, I don’t think this is a problem with individual intentions of sexism. However, unstructured, mob-rule classes like Lifetime Sports can, in certain conditions, lead to mass exclusion of certain types of people — even if that exclusion is totally unrelated to those individuals.
I’ll leave you with this. To girls: don’t shy away from getting involved. Just because it’s tempting to stop trying doesn’t mean you should. It’s worth it to put in that extra effort to gain the trust of your peers (even though in a perfect world you wouldn’t have to). To everyone else: don’t make judgements about who’s a good player without giving them the chance to make a good play. Any athlete knows that getting sidelined unfairly hurts; don’t do it to anyone else. Let your teammates define their own success, don’t try to do it yourself. Chances are they might surprise you.