High School Sports Fail Female Athletes

By Haley Chelemedos, Staff Writer

// “This is a man’s world,” James Brown sang in 1966, sending a clear message to all listeners. While we may not consider everything to men’s advantage anymore, the high school sports system certainly still is.

   Despite progress made through Title IX and other legislation, female high school athletes continue to experience discomfort and underestimation in sports systems geared toward men’s physical and mental needs.

   I have experienced my fair share of difficult situations as a female athlete competing in two varsity sports at Acalanes High School. Yet, I am aware that my “fair share” of negative experiences in sports programs is far more than what my male counterparts face. 

   Whether my anatomy as a female is too difficult to represent or that mental health is not stressed enough, the female athletic community often goes unacknowledged. Due to society’s pressures on teenage girls to look and act in certain ways and the fact that the sports industry permeates such standards, female athletes face extraordinary strain.

   Sports have existed for thousands of years, providing entertainment, exercise, and career opportunities; largely the same values in participation Americans see today. Since the creation of organized sports, the most significant change was the introduction of women into the industry. However, because of expectations regarding female athletic ability, existing sports systems did not change to better serve female athletes. High school sports programs are included, as they still favor male athletes at the expense of female athletes’ management of hormonal health, eating habits, and mental health.

   Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex for any program receiving Federal financial assistance. Many regard Title IX as an enormous stride for female athletes. It provides female and male athletes the same opportunities and protects female athletes against sexual harassment and assault. 

   Yet, there are still many disparities in high school athletics that extend further than basic participation measures and funding. Sports systems did not explicitly create many issues that female athletes confront, yet they permeate them and continue to turn a blind eye to the reality of women’s athletics.

   One aspect of high school athletics often detrimental to female athletes is the constant push for fitness rather than health. According to the National Library of Medicine, fitness describes one’s ability to perform a given exercise task, while health explains a person’s state of well-being. Health keeps athletes in good condition for the long run, while fitness focuses on the time of competition.

   Coaches, parents, and even teammates enforce fitness values through false ideas of an “ideal” body type. While many believe that a toned, slim figure is healthy, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports that teen girls require an average of 2,200 calories daily. With a proper diet, staying lean is unrealistic. However, sports culture still encourages swimming, track and field, tennis, and many other sports to pertain to a certain physique. 

   Men, on the other hand, do not face nearly as much pressure to stay slim as women. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) states that female athletes who participate in aesthetic sports experience disordered eating at estimates up to 62%, while males at only 33%. This disparity may be a consequence of harmful high school sports programs that do not address healthy eating or those that may actually encourage athletes to engage in destructive eating habits including calorie counting and food limitations. 

   Eating practices that do not provide women with the necessary nutrients can lead to further complications with their health. For example, when a female does not eat enough, she can experience disruption of brain signals that tell the ovaries to produce estrogen. Estrogen is crucial to bone growth and development, and as the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reports, about 95% of a young woman’s peak bone mass is present by age 20. So, women may experience long-term health issues including a high risk of fractures, stunted height, or back and neck pain, just because toxic sports systems told them not to eat properly during their teenage years. 

   Two common traps for athletes who develop bad eating habits, usually excessive calorie counting or food restrictions, are called low energy availability (LEA) and relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S). Molly Huddle and Sara Slattery’s book, How She Did It, addresses these conditions, and how they stem from messages females receive from the media and members within a sports community. Not only do conditions like LEA and RED-S cause recurrent and non-healing injuries which makes an athlete’s situation worse, but they damage long-term bone health, menstrual cycle function, energy metabolism, infection resistance, protein synthesis, cardiovascular health, and physiological health.

   Not caring for female athletes’ needs, which are specific to their bodies and minds, can generally hurt their well-being. Being injured takes a toll on a female’s mental health, and vice versa. In a study by Hongmei Li, Jennifer Moreland, Corrine Peek-Asa, and Jingzhen Yang for The American Journal of Sports Medicine, female athletes who are anxious sustain injuries at a rate that is 1.9 times higher than that of female athletes who do not report any anxiety symptoms.

   While eating, body image, and mental health are just a few of the struggles that female athletes face, I am yet to see any meaningful address for these prevalent issues. Although it has only been 50 years since the passing of Title IX, I am shocked by the fact that many are ignorant of the fact that females’ experiences in sports programs are often unfavorable.

   At Acalanes, there are only five female head coaches for both co-ed and women’s sports, while every men’s sport has a male head coach. There is nothing inherently wrong with that; but in order for this coaching inconsistency to be okay, male coaches must learn about the difficulties female athletes face. 

   Creating a safe environment for every athlete is key for open conversations, where coaches and adults alike can guide athletes to accept their bodies and face difficulties. Encouraging a positive social influence also supports athletes, and promotes inclusivity for an overall better experience. We can all take the first step and educate ourselves on the issues that burden female athletes, in order to move forward to progressive high school sports systems.

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