Unladylike: the problem of labels reveals deeper issues in women’s sport

You may once have been told “that’s not very ladylike”. My mum certainly said this a few times, and I always responded with something along the lines of “I don’t want to be a lady!”. It’s a comment which I think riles most women, and sits in the league of being told to “smile!” by men on public transport, or a stranger not believing that you could possibly study at Oxford. So when I saw Jenny Myrans’ LinkedIn post a few weeks ago, I was intrigued to learn that this is still a problem, even in professional sport. 

I spoke to Jenny, and asked her to explain a bit more about the problem. Jenny joined Tsunami Sport as a Product and Brand Developer, helping to design eco kits for sports teams. When she met the team, she immediately raised the issue of clothing labels being marked as “ladies’”, rather than “women’s”. 

“The term ‘ladies’ is oozing with connotations of fragility and daintiness”, Myrans told me, “these are hardly traits desired when playing sports”. Myrans played rugby for many years, but was repeatedly told that she was “butch” and would end up with a “thick neck”, despite her physical strength being an obvious advantage in contact sports. 

“The term ‘ladies’ is oozing with connotations of fragility and daintiness”

It’s not just the sexist connotations that frustrate Myrans, but practical considerations too – the “patronising” term hints at a much bigger problem, with sports kits not fitting women’s and girl’s bodies properly. It might seem crazy, but none of the major football boot manufacturers have invested in a design that supports women’s feet, even though elite players report blisters and stress fractures caused by boots designed for male heels and arches. 

It wasn’t until the 2019 Women’s World Cup that Nike, Adidas, Puma and Umbro started making bespoke women’s kits. These changes matter – having played in men’s football shorts (too big at the waist, fall down) and women’s football shorts (too short and revealing), I can attest that kit and equipment has a massive impact on your confidence and play. And it can be dangerous too – Olympic cyclist Hannah Dines had to undergo plastic surgery on her vulva due to years of pain caused by saddles designed for men. 

Whilst positive changes have been made – such as Manchester City and other clubs introducing non-white shorts – sexism in sport remains pervasive. Over the weekend, the sporting director of my home team – Stuart Webber – came under fire for having “zero interest” in women’s football, even as Norwich City Women claimed their seventh County Cup final title at Carrow Road on Friday 19th May. Having been lucky enough to attend the Women’s Euros final last year, and witnessing the incredible, emotional, supportive atmosphere that women’s games foster, it seems shocking that Webber believes his comments to be justified and reasonable. 

As we see numerous women’s footballers sidelined by ACL injuries, notably the Arsenal power-couple of England forward Beth Mead and Ballon d’Or stalwart Viv Miedema, pressure is increasing on sporting giants to accommodate women’s bodies (rather than the current ‘add in and stir’ model). Changes trickle down to grassroots too, with more comfortable kit potentially encouraging the 61% of girls who give up sport at secondary school to rediscover their passion. 

Whilst the long, cruel arm of puberty is something of a stereotype used to degrade teenage girls (for being too hormonal, or moody, or emotional), it’s also a killer for self-confidence. Changing rooms are living nightmares for many students – boys and girls alike – not to mention those who may be unsure of or exploring their gender identity and/or sexuality. Headlines focusing on trans folk, such as World Athletics’ recent banning of transgender women from competing in global events, certainly don’t help to promote the idea that sport is for everyone.

Some simple changes can be made from the bottom-up, I believe. As Myrans pointed out, “we need to ditch the idea that women should be held to a higher standard when it comes to how they act towards each other, the opposition, their fans, and how they present themselves.” In other words: we need to be unladylike, women.

Image description: 3 women playing football

Image credit: Ashley Williams via Pexels