New research showing gendered school sport uniform plays a “major role” in high drop-out rates of teenage girls in sport, has already broken boundaries to help remove rigid policies meaning skirts no longer need to be worn in women’s English domestic hockey matches.
Published in the peer-reviewed journal Sport, Education and Society, the study, which looked at a range of women across the UK aged 18 and over, found 70 percent reported incidents of girls dropping sport at school due to clothing and related body image concerns.
The research was led by Tess Howard while she was studying human geography at Durham University. Her early promotion of her dissertation paper within hockey circles has already led to new inclusive playing kit regulations being launched at the start of England Hockey’s domestic league 2022/23.
Now, Howard balancing her playing career with becoming a sports activist. She is on a mission to change the face of hockey internationally, enabling choice for athletes to wear shorts or skorts. Long term, she aims to tackle the issue of gendered uniform across all sport.
“It’s all about choice; choice is being rigorously inclusive,” said Howard, reflecting our interview with the GB star last month.
“My dream is to go to the Olympics, but my dream is also an Olympics with the option to wear shorts or skorts. That is a powerful statement of inclusion, belonging and evolution in women’s sport.
“No person should be put off participating in any sport based purely on what the uniform requires them to wear. We must put the purpose of sport first and enable individuals to enjoy being active for all the clear benefits.
“If people want to wear shorts or leggings playing basketball or tennis or gymnastics it does not matter.
“The findings I discovered, in terms of the number of girls this is putting off sport, is truly alarming. It’s the most underrated cause of low female sport numbers.”
Taints a view of women’s sport
Tess, who is now studying for a master’s at the London School of Economics, adds: “The legacy of gendered and sexualized uniforms is historic, dating back to Victorian times when women and girls in sport had to find ways to emphasize their femininity to be accepted in a masculine world – whether through playing tennis, cricket and hockey in long skirts or sexualization of beach volleyball and gymnastics uniforms. The legacy still exists.
“My research shows it taints a view of women’s sport from a very young age, and it puts focus on what girls’ bodies look like, rather than what they can do on the sports field or in the gym.
“Women’s sport is on the rise – we are so proud of our successful female sporting teams; but think of all the girls we have lost to kit problems. It’s not a girl-issue, it’s systemic in society and it’s a simple fix: choice.”
Historic data shows the gender play gap starts at age 5.
By age 14 only 10% of girls meet physical activity health standards.
Tess wanted to uncover – outside of society norms, social media and class – ‘what are the main barriers?’
Her hypothesis was school sport uniform impacts female sporting experiences and participation in physical activity. She wanted to uncover, too, how a uniform policy could be changed to promote greater female sport participation.
To uncover more, she carried out an extensive analytical online survey, promoted through social media, which 404 women across the UK completed. This was followed-up by eight interviews with a selection of those who had most recently left school.
The findings demonstrate participation and enjoyment of sport was severely impacted by uniform. In total, three-quarters of survey respondents replied ‘often’, ‘many’ and ‘sometimes’, when asked if participants ever saw girls stop playing sport because of sports kit or body image concerns.
What the results showed
- many women felt sexualized by what they are being forced to wear in sport, contributing to the internalization of the unattainable ‘feminine body ideal’.
- gendered uniforms “influence the development of a fear of ‘masculinization’ and ‘butch/lesbian’ perceptions in sport, and signal the ways uniform can contribute to harmful athletic-feminine identity tensions in teenage girls”.
- gender-split uniforms create behavioral gender role stereotypes, and “undoing cis-normative clothing practices could foster a more inclusive space for all”, especially gender diverse students.
- creating choice is also about supporting physical sporting performance
Following early results of the study, Howard was able to use her influence within the sport to make a positive change, but she is determined to not stop there.
She is now launching Inclusive Sportswear CIC, a community-interest company specialising in the development of rigorously inclusive sportswear policies and guidance for schools, clubs, sport organizations and brands.
Inclusive Sportswear CIC, and its partnerships with Youth Sport Trust and Sporting Equals, will be launched in May at the Include Summit in Manchester.
Howard said: “I continually ask myself: If not now, when? If not us, who? That is what drives me.
“The momentum has been building, now we must connect sports clothing to inclusion and participation in sport.
“But it’s so much more than that: this connects to a greater global movement for individual choice over how we clothe and treat our bodies.”