US President Barack Obama said these words the other day when congratulating the World Cup-winning US women’s soccer (football) team.
These amazing women are some of the best athletes in the world. They showed everyone what excellence looks like.
But Obama’s words defy expected language. They defy the normal phrases that children grow up hearing on a daily basis.
For many people, “playing like a girl” (and much nastier variations) means being bad. Being too slow. Being clumsy. Being too weak. Striking out. Dropping a catch. Missing a tackle. Missing a shot. Getting crossed up.
I grew up with 4 brothers in a house dominated by sports and this was the language we heard and knew.
It’s everything you don’t want to be. If you “play like a girl” as a boy, it’s time to go home. It’s time to stop playing sports, because girls shouldn’t play sports.
The reality via GIPHY
Conversely, “playing like a boy” is used to put down girls who are exceptionally good, to ostracize and discourage them from further pursuing their talent.
This gendered language shapes how people view the world and, if not challenged, seeps into future generations.
And this causes girls soccer teams to be underfunded or nonexistent. It causes practice and game fields to be available to girls only at inconvenient times and places. It causes soccer opportunities to dwindle as a girl gets older until they all but vanish as a college or career option. It causes society to think women’s soccer is not as exciting as men’s soccer.
Of the millions of girls who play soccer in the US, only 180 get paid to do it professionally, according to TakePart.
And the women who do get paid are paid a lot less than their male counterparts, according to Business Insider.
When girls are so persistently discouraged from playing sports on so many levels it’s an achievement that any girls play sports at all, let alone command the biggest US audience for soccer of all time.
But millions (maybe even billions) still do. These girls and women are the true athletic role models: people whose love for sports inspires them to play despite all the obstacles, all the detractors telling to them to go away.
It’s easy for boys to play sports. They’re all but funneled into them. But girls face challenges everywhere from the moment they step onto the field and feel alive with joy.
In Brazil, girls and women were denied the right to play soccer from 1941 to 1979. Since the ban was lifted, playing soccer has not become that much easier for girls.
There’s an overwhelming cultural pressure for girls to stay away from this “male” sport.
NPR recently wrote about a group of girls in the Rocinha favela, or shantytown, outside of Rio de Janeiro who, despite all the insults hurled at them and disapproval everywhere, play and love soccer.
In India, where opportunities for girls rapidly fade as they age (domestic work, early marriage, child-bearing), soccer is liberating.
The non-profit All Girls Can Play interviewed Payal, a 17-year old girl living in a slum outside Mumbai.
She said, “I have seen my future in football. I want to become a good player and see a good player in myself. I want to show people what I can achieve by playing football. Since I have started playing football, I have learnt many things apart from football itself: how to respect people, how to work hard to convert your losses to wins, how to behave with others, how to play on a team and, if anyone is in need and I can help them, to make sure I am helping them.”
In Mexico, gender norms are similarly oppressive. The crisis of femicide and machismo culture contribute to constricted opportunities for girls.
Zaira in San Juan Tlacotenco, Mexico told All Girls Can Play, “For me, playing a sport means to interact and coexist with the people of my community, to get to know them, know what they do in their daily lives, know their tastes and, most importantly, making friendships.”
I encourage you to check out the rest of their profiles. They show what it really means to “play like a girl.”
All around the world girls are shattering the idea that “playing like a girl” is a bad thing.
They’re playing rock-solid defense. They’re sprinting down the field with marvelous footwork. They’re scoring acrobatic and powerful goals.
And they’re putting an end to gender discrimination.
You can also help put an end to gender discrimination by going to TAKE ACTION NOW to call on world leaders assembling at the G20 summit in Turkey in the weeks ahead to prioritize equality.