Here at Girls Inc. of Greater Indianapolis, we know that many girls love to be active. During Strong Week of Summer Camp, girls enjoy learning tennis, yoga, Zumba, and more. Even during other programs, like Work It Out and Redefining Beauty, it’s clear that girls love to move and play, especially when they’re in our 6-8 year-old age group. They squirm in their seats, and love when there’s a quick break to dance out their energy or stretch their legs. If we see so much activity during our programs, how then is it possible that there is a noticeable gap between the fitness activity of girls and boys across the country?
In America, girls are overall less physically active than boys. According to a 2014 CDC study, girls scored statistically much lower cardiorespiratory fitness levels than boys, with 33.8% compared to boys’ 50.2%. Another 2016 Public Library of Science study revealed that girls were less physically fit in other areas as well: at age 8, girls had higher body fat and 44% lower hand-eye coordination than that of their male peers. Why is there such a gender gap in physical activity for children?
The authors of the 2016 study theorize that this disparity can be explained because girls receive less encouragement to be physically fit from their home and school environments than boys usually do. This makes sense when you consider the types of encouragement girls receive instead. Many girls lack the encouragement to be physically active or excel in physical sports, but they receive an overwhelmingly large amount of encouragement to always look pretty or beautiful. According to a 2016 study conducted by The Guardian, a third of girls aged 7-10 believe that they are judged most for their appearance, and a quarter of them believe that they are pressured to look physically perfect. What’s worse, 37% of those 7-10 year-olds believe women of all ages are judged more for their appearances than for their skills or performances.
When girls are told their appearances are worth more than their actions and skills, they are more motivated to invest their energy into their looks, instead of into their physical activity. That’s obviously not to say there are no female athletes, or that every girl cares most about their looks. All girls are unique, and have their own interests and hobbies. However, if girls were receiving as many positive messages about their physical health and strength as they do about maintaining their looks, then the gap between boy and girl activity levels might close.
While body image is also an issue for boys, they do not seem to be judged for their looks on the same pervasive level as young girls are. Boys also enjoy the benefits of being part of a culture which overall values male sports and athletes more than it does female sports and athletes. Male football teams play in the biggest games of the high school season, like homecoming. Male basketball players are the ones who compete in March Madness. And only male baseball players make it to the Major Leagues. Because of this, it’s seen as a more worthwhile and realistic goal for boys to pursue sports as a long-term goal, than for girls to do the same.
Some people even say that it’s just more in boys’ nature to be more active than girls. Boys are stereotyped as rowdy, active, and rambunctious; girls are stereotyped as being none of the above. Usually, girls are seen as more sensitive, or less tough, than boys. Some believe it comes down to natural, biological differences; boys are just naturally more active. Period.
But here at Girls Inc., we know that stereotypes like that simply aren’t true. Girls love running, jumping, dancing, and playing. They should be able to act however they want and not worry about stereotypes which say they shouldn’t be so strong, sporty, or energetic. Most likely, the gap between fitness levels for boys and girls is thanks to social environments which say girls simply shouldn’t or don’t act a certain way. But we believe every girl has the freedom to be whoever they want, to play whatever they want, and to always, always believe in her own strength. Because girls are, above all, strong, smart, and bold!