Supporting Leisure Literacy: Thinking Beyond Traditional Female Sports

Stereotypes about male and female sport participation are everywhere. Last evening I was catching up on my Twitter feed. I feel like I follow a lot of great people and organizations that get me thinking about a variety of topics. I saw this photo that Active for Life had tweeted – “Figure skater in training”.

Thinking Beyond Traditional Female Sports

Active for Life is “the place where parents go to learn about how to make a difference in the health and happiness of their children”. Their website provides great resources related to physical activity and the organization clearly cares about physical literacy.

When I saw this photo though, I thought about leisure literacy and what images communicate to parents about the role and potential of various leisure activities in their children’s lives. Some may argue that this is a harmless or primarily beneficial message – one that helps link the arts (e.g., ballet) with sport or demonstrates that physical literacy skills are transferable across various physical activities. These are important messages to communicate to parents and I am happy that we have an organization in Canada that is doing this work.

My concern with this photo, however, is its potential to perpetuate gender stereotypes related to physical activity.

First, ballet is already perceived as a primarily female pursuit. I watched a news story a few weeks ago about ballet catching on with boys. Those males who choose ballet have to deal with a variety of negative attitudes and perceptions about their activity choice. These attitudes and perceptions exist, in part, because of the messages that get communicated about boys’ place in society and that “place” is more often shown as a sports field or court as opposed to a dance studio or stage. The lack of balance among the images of ballerinos (male ballet dancers) and ballerinas that circulate further reinforce the notion that ballet is for girls.

Next, the text in the photo links a stereotypically female activity (ballet) with a stereotypical female sport (figure skating). Yet, girls have so many more options. Learning ballet can develop physical literacy skills that could benefit girls’ participation in a variety of sports. For example, ballet is used as part of hockey training. Ballet can help with balance and posture, spatial awareness and body control, and flexibility. I also couldn’t help but think of other sports that ballet training might support – ski jumping (e.g., aerials), gymnastics, downhill skiing, and snowboarding. Part of facilitating the development of leisure literacy is helping others to understand the breadth of leisure opportunities and to break down barriers to participation (including barriers related to attitudes and gender stereotypes). So, while the image of the girl in the tutu and its accompanying text may communicate an important message about physical literacy, it may not help develop one’s leisure awareness or literacy.

I did my part (at least I hope I did) to communicate that there might be other opportunities that ballet could provide. I wasn’t trying to be rude or critical of the Active for Life message. Rather, I was hoping to add to the possibilities and suggest that developing physical skills through a traditional female pursuit can help girls/women to excel in a variety of sports including those that aren’t traditionally viewed as “female” sports.

tweet about ballerina

Ballet can be valuable as an activity to enhance sport performance regardless of whether you’re a male or female athlete. It would be great to see a boy in the photo with the text “hockey player in training”. Such images could help broaden perceptions of who participates in ballet and why.

Finally, I want to clarify that I’m not suggesting that participating in ballet does not have value in and of itself. It is a physically demanding activity that can develop a number of muscle groups. It is an activity that allows for personal and creative expression. It can foster self-confidence and self-discipline. And, it can provide opportunities to meet new people, develop friendships, and have fun – whether you are a boy or a girl. An added bonus is the potential ballet has for training those who may want to co-participate in ballet and one or more sports or move on from ballet and focus on a sport pursuit.


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