The Ordeals of Breaking Out of the Box

Tayla Harris (AFLW player) caught in action.
Courtesy: Michael C. Wilson

In March 2019, a picture that showed ‘a great athlete at her most powerful’ was deleted from social media after repulsive comments were posted by trolls. Tayla Harris is an Australian rules football player who plays for the Carlton Football Club in the women’s league. In Australian rules football, players are often depicted in photographs as strong and powerful, because that is what they are. When one types in the word ‘AFL’ into their search bar, there are many photographs of players with their teeth clenched, their arms outstretched, in the middle of kicking an oval shaped ball. However, just because Tayla Harris is a woman, she had to face a form of sexual abuse- because the wider society is still unable to accept that female bodies, (like male bodies) should be appreciated for what they can do, rather than what they look like.

While in recent years progress has been made surrounding women in sport with the Australian Open becoming the second major tennis tournament to commit to parity in prize money between the genders, the beginning of an independent Australian women’s netball league alongside the introduction and success of the AFL women’s league; stigmatizing and stereotyping is still very common. There is no denying that society has come a long way, but looking at our history, there is more than ample evidence that further progress is possible.

In Australia’s colonial era, women’s sports that were encouraged were mostly ones that did not challenge traditional gender roles and allowed for men and women to compete fairly against one another. This resulted in a number of women’s sporting contests being held in Australia, including the first bicycling race in the world for women and the first Australian championship in golf, which was open to both genders. Positive attitudes towards women in sport also meant that a number of sports had been integrated into physical education courses for girls at schools in Victoria.

Don Edwards Evonne Goolagong playing tennis at the Australian Open in Melbourne, 1967. Courtesy: National Library of Australia.

During the early twentieth century, creation of women’s only sports clubs became increasingly common. This progress in women’s sport continued steadily throughout the century, relatively better than it did in in other nations more severely affected by the world wars, as Australian society had not had to deal with the issues that faced their counterparts.

So what has happened to the Australia that was far ahead of all other nations for women’s sports? Now, a photo of a female athlete with her legs outstretched because she is kicking a ball is deemed ‘inappropriate’ by some- and in that way, they are justifying the vile comments made by the trolls. The root of these problems and discussions are around the way society looks at the female body and the ‘ideal’ that it is measured against.

As a society, we have advanced beyond measure in many ways, but in terms of the way we treat and look at women’s bodies, progress has been relatively slow. It seems that women are constantly being pressurized to look ‘womanly’ and to have interests in ‘feminine’ things. However, at this point in history aren’t these views outdated? While most are more accepting of seeing women in positions of power, or women in the sports field, those women still need to battle through the stigma and lack of acceptance.

Research has shown that athletes, regardless of gender, struggle with their body image in regards to keeping in shape; but with the added external pressures of looking like an ‘ideal woman’ and being ‘feminine’, their well-being and performance is being compromised. As a society, we need to stop ourselves from objectifying women and their bodies. This will be hard, because it is in the little habits and mannerisms we all have- the way we describe others by their appearance, the way we teach girls to sit with their legs together so that they seem ‘ladylike’.

Ash Barty holding her French Open trophy, 2019. Courtesy: Associated Press

Women are stigmatised to be less important and less powerful than men. In terms of sports, the media coverage that they receive doesn’t make things any better. In the few instances that women’s sports are discussed, it describes women in ways that stress feminine beauty, weakness, passivity and insignificance, which deflects attention from their athleticism. Currently, coverage of immediate events and achievements of women in sport is better than it was in the past- an example being Ash Barty’s 2019 French Open win.

However, how many Australians can honestly say they knew Ash Barty’s name before she won the French Open? 

She was actually and still is the only Australian to be in the world’s top twenty tennis players as of now, both male and female- yet she did not feature on the news cycle nearly as much as other Australian male tennis players like Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic. Though we have seen the recent coverage has improved, news around regular women’s sport seems to vanish from the news cycle altogether when there is no ‘news hook’ or obvious angle.

Male players receive far more attention than their female counterparts. Courtesy: Getty.

Another problem that pervades women, is the constant criticisms and aversion to them playing sport- so many women are told that ‘sports are a man’s domain’, that they are ‘too fat’ or told that they are not good enough to play sport. It is almost as if women have to be ten times better than their male counterparts to even be taken seriously. And when they are taken seriously, they are given less resources, less funding and less overall support.

In workplaces around the world, women earn an average of almost thirteen percent less than men. This is very much reflected in sport too, where there are massive gaps in the prize money, sponsorships, facilities and equipment. For example, in 2016, Christiano Ronaldo was the highest paid athlete with earnings reported to be more than $88M, whereas the highest paid female footballer, Alex Morgan, earned around $2.8M. In Australia we are doing better, in that Cricket Australia has a gender equity pay model, but the Matildas still earn a fraction of the Socceroos.

Alex Morgan (left) is paid more than $85 million more than Christiano Ronaldo (right), despite their statuses as highest paid footballers in their respective genders.

The United Nations reported that ‘sport is a driver for gender equality’. Yet women are still facing so much inequality in sporting industries themselves all around the world. There are still cases where people find it astonishing that ‘women are playing men’s sports’. Some are adverse to the idea of women playing sports because some sections of society still hold to a distorted idea of what the gender equality movement is about.

In this day and age, it is outrageous that women are still so confined in their gender roles. It’s as if on birth, young girls are placed in a box- a pretty, frilly, pink box- that they are told to stay in for the rest of their lives. From the moment girls can understand the things that happen around them, they are nudged into believing that the options in this box is all they can be and that if they dare to step outside the box, they will face harsh and unfair criticism. Women are placed in this box so that they can be kept ‘safe’ from the harsh realities of the world. As history has progressed, more and more women have stepped outside the box, had enough courage to take the criticism and have made it easier for the people after them. Even still, that box exists. Isn’t it time for society to change?

If everyone has to think outside the box, maybe it is the box that needs fixing.

Malcolm Gladwell

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