They say a good tennis player can play in any shoes, and yet for some reason in schools it’s long been enforced that boys wear one uniform while girls wear another when playing sport. Gendered kits would appear to be at best unnecessary, and now new research has found they can be damaging as it connected an alarmingly high rate of drop-out in sports among girls to rigid rules around kits.
The UK-based study used mixed methods to get quantitative and qualitative data from a sample of 400 female-only participants aged 18 and over. It was led by human geography graduate and England hockey star Tess Howard, now studying for a master’s at the London School of Economics, whose preliminary findings inspired new inclusive playing kit regulations for the domestic league 2022/23.
It was inspired by historic data that showed the gender play gap begins around age five, eventually leading to just 10 percent of girls aged 14 meeting the physical activity health standards. Diving into the topic revealed that participation and enjoyment of sport was significantly impacted by the uniform students were expected to wear.
It also revealed girls felt sexualized by some sports kits, which Howard hypothesized could contribute to the internalization of the “feminine body ideal" that can carry into later life. Gendered uniforms also fueled a fear of “masculinization,” putting girls off sports in case it led to an athletic build that didn’t fit in with the body type sports kits led them to believe they needed.
Some of the quotes provided by participants demonstrated how sports kits complicated a pivotal time in many girls’ lives when their bodies change during puberty.
“My friends with larger breasts tended to stop playing sports due to the style of our tops,” said one respondent.
“From Year 7-9 [age 11-14], girls in my PE classes felt uncomfortable in the fit of some kit and their self-confidence decreased in kit if they perceived to not have the ‘ideal female body’,” said another.
In total, 70 percent of the participants reported incidents of girls dropping out of sports due to body image and kit-related concerns – a statistic that demonstrates how many would-be sports stars we could be losing due to kit rules, and one obvious solution to try and encourage their enjoyment of physical education.
“No person should be put off participating in any sport based purely on what the uniform requires them to wear,” said Howard in a statement. “We must put the purpose of sport first and enable individuals to enjoy being active for all the clear benefits.”
“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.”
The study is published in Sport Education and Society.