England’s success in the women’s Euros must be the spur to more investment in girls football, but it goes much beyond that.
I wanted to write something about the Euros because it’s much bigger than women in football, which is important in its own right, or women in sport generally. It’s about seeing that when you are told – in so many ways – that you are not as good, not as important, not as capable – it is hard not to let some of that rub off on you. When you are fed ‘role models’ that are mainly about how you look it seeps in, no matter how many times your mother tells you it’s all rubbish and that she is not disrepecting the role models by saying that, she is disrespecting the limiting, soul-destroying impression that it is not enough for girls to be smart or funny or capable unless they are also hot and that this need to be hot is somehow ’empowering’.
So the Euros win is about much more than football, but it is also about football. My daughter Anisha always wanted to be herself despite all the pressures, even though she was paralysingly shy as a young girl. She was in a football team for a year when the FA funded some coaching. They won the regionals and we went to a ceremony for her to be given freedom of the parish, whatever that means. Then nothing. The funding dried up and the football team disbanded because the school didn’t have the capacity or interest to coach the girls and the boys didn’t want the girls to play with them.
What has been so emotional with the Euros, apart from all of the overturning of stereotypes, has been men and boys standing with the girls and celebrating the win – Ian Wright in the commentary box talking with passion about the need for investment. This is liberating for all of us, but we need much more of it.
Anisha also created an anti-pink website, with its own manifesto and rewrite of fairytales because she hated the stereotypes being foisted on her – the whole pink princess thing. I’m not saying princesses and stuff are bad per se, but when there is little else that’s when it becomes a problem, a tyranny. When you go into toy shops and one side is blue and the other is pink froth it limits how girls see themselves. It panders to extreme ideas of gender which are ones that I would argue most people don’t feel fit them.
I’m old enough to know that it hasn’t always been this way. The influence of the market has commercialised extremes, just as it has corrupted news and social media where only extreme opinions seem to be of interest. Maybe that is because people buy extremes, whether it be CCTV footage of people dying or polarised views on just about everything. But that is where some sense of vision for society should surely kick in – some sense of collective responsibility – because this kind of thing is not harmless fun. It makes people ill. I recall another of my daughters curled up in the foetal position on her bed, sobbing that ‘they judge every part of you’. Parents are impotent against this stuff because it is so all-pervasive. All you can do is talk to your daughters and tell them it’s nonsense, that you too tried to resist and that it made you sick, not because you were weak, but because you were strong. But does that actually help them or help them enough to withstand it?
So, the football is about more than sport and it is such a joy and a liberation to see girls allowed to be simply people who are good at what they do. But it’s not enough to celebrate. The investment needs to be there for the long term and it needs to start early, at primary school. What’s more, we need to drive home the message that girls don’t have to please anyone or conform to anything. They can just be.
*Picture credit: Wikipedia