A new report from the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation has shown that 51% of girls are put off physical exercise by experiences during PE lessons at school. The problem is a serious one, as levels of physical activity amongst young people are dramatically low. The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation website reveals that a shockingly low 12% of girls aged 14 are benefitting from the recommended amount of physical activity (though even the figures for boys, at 24% are not particularly encouraging).

The report suggests that the problem is with the sporting options provided by schools, as it claims that 74% of girls said they would like to be more active, but are put off by school PE lessons and school sports. The WSFF suggests that girls and boys do the same amount of exercise at a young age (in Year 4), but that by Year 6, the girls are falling behind. The gap widens yet further by Year 9. This would certainly seem to support the theory that girls become more put off by PE as they get older, perhaps due to embarrassment and concerns with appearance as they hit their early teens.

The figures certainly support this theory, as 48% of the girls surveyed complained that getting sweaty is “not feminine”, while nearly a third revealed fears that boys did not find sporty girls “feminine”.

The statistics further suggest that school sport is angled too specifically towards competition and rivalry, with 45% of girls labelling it “too competitive” and over half of all respondents agreeing that there are greater opportunities for boys to succeed in sport than girls.

So it seems that fears of failure in the eyes of others, doubt about their own sporting abilities, lack of enjoyment of competitive games and worries about looking unattractive are all major factors discouraging girls from participating fully in school sport. The question is; what can be done to entice them back to PE?

The WSFF suggests that the responsibility lies with schools to make sport more enjoyable and attractive to girls, perhaps by introducing more girl-friendly sports such as ‘zumba’ and roller-blading. But there are also fears that this could worsen sexist problems such as girls who play traditional sports being bullied for being too ‘masculine’, or female sports being labelled less serious and challenging than those played by men.

Perhaps a more favourable idea would be to incentivise school sports again for girls by reducing the competitive element and celebrating those at all levels of the game, or by ensuring single-sex PE sessions to allow girls to enjoy sport uninhibited by fears about boys’ reactions. Another crucial step will be to increase the number of female sporting figures featured in the media, as 43% of the female pupils surveyed agreed that “there aren’t many sporting role models for girls”.

Of course in the long run, it will be much more important to tackle the root causes of such insecurities, and this study certainly seems to reveal the need for a serious investigation into the reasons why young girls are becoming so concerned about the opinions of boys and so convinced of stereotypical, media-driven standards of ‘femininity’ and attractiveness that they are overtaking their concerns with their own physical health in the first place.