Gender Roles, Sport and Wellbeing … the link!

When you look at traditional, old-fashioned gender roles in UK society you might think of women as the house wives, the carers, nurturers, the stay at home and care for the young types….wear their heart on their sleeves. For men, you might think of the bread keeper, the ‘man of the house’, protector and provider of the home. Turns out that despite us now being in a very modern 21st century world these stereotypes in gender roles may not have moved on that far!
Turning our attention to sport, how do gender roles play a part? Do they exist?
Recent studies suggest that they do exist and are very powerful in both stigmas, conformity and individual wellbeing! Within sport there are clear gender norms of what is socially appropriate for males and females, these are known to add pressure on the athlete socially and emotionally. The male athletes’ ‘social norm’ might suggest that they are expected to take part in risky behaviours such as binge drinking, sexual promiscuity and aggressive behaviour (Liu and Iwamoto, 2007). Now, we understand that the modern man may not want to behave that way; more that they may want to take time to be with their family, actually show their emotions to others and be the ‘model athlete’ – clean eating, no substance misuse and a very hard and focused work ethic with their training. So what happens if you’re a male elite athlete and you suddenly find yourself in a team where these older masculine gender roles exist? First, let’s have a look at how females are affected by gender roles in sport!
The issue found with female sport is existence of the older stereotypical ‘femininity’ norms (Mahalik et al, 2005). But the difficulty for females lies not necessarily with these normal themselves but within the contradictions that exist between that and the reality of elite level sport. For example to be successful in sport a female athlete would need to show what are typically masculine traits such as competitiveness, aggressiveness and toughness (Beal, 1996) whilst also maintaining their femininity by displaying attractiveness, heterosexuality and maintaining relationships with others. These conflicting themes are not only confusing for the athlete to understand but they are difficult to achieve and cause further issues with self-esteem, physical health, interpersonal relationships and the onset of further mental health problems. Evidence from studies such as this found that females trying to conform to these norms either showed symptoms of, or had current eating disorders and deep issues around their body image (Green et al, 2008).
….So coming back to my earlier question – what happens if you are the athlete in an environment where these gender norms exist? Do you ignore those norms and live your life as you wish risking your social inclusion and acceptance of the team? Or do you conform to the group and the gender roles in place knowing that it will make you unhappy and may even affect your relationships with those you love and your own health?
Sadly although we understand that these gender norms are old-fashioned, out of date and a detriment to the athlete they do still exist and they are very powerful. Especially in the experience and fear of social stigma for those who wish to deviate and actually live their life as they please embracing their own norm as opposed to societies.
But how does that really impact on health and wellbeing longer term? Previous blogs by us describes the prevalence of mental health issues in sport generally, but also emerging from this literature is the relationship between gender roles and wellbeing. Good and Wood (1995) found that male athletes who felt the need to conform to gender roles appeared to hold negative attitudes towards support services because ‘real men’ have control over their emotions, are powerful and have a better self-reliance therefore there is no need to access support. This was also supported by the findings of Addis and Malik (2003) who found similar differences in attitudes and a underutilisation of services within the male athletic population. Alongside these perceived gender roles, the athlete’s level of openness also has an impact on attitude formation and uptake of services. Generally speaking individuals who are more aware of their emotions and more open to the idea of counselling are more likely to access the support (Vogel et al 2007) but gender differences have also been found within levels of openness within the population. Women are found to have more favourable attitudes towards accessing mental health support than men (Fischer and Turner, 1970; Leaf, Bruce, Tischler, and Holzer, 1987). This is supported by Komiya, Good and Sherrod (2000) who also found that female athletes have a higher level of emotional openness, a more positive attitude towards mental health support therefore experience less self stigma and are more likely to access such support. Population because of perceived gender roles, claiming that ideologies and masculinity were the main causes.
Norms in society will take some time to change, but so long as media and the individuals in those sports teams continue to reinforce them they will never change and catch up with the real world! Female athletes can be both competitive and aggressive but remain beautiful and great nurturers at the same time; male athletes can be strong and successful without taking part in risky behaviours or being promiscuous.
The more these conflicts exist, the more we risk the wellbeing, health and performance of our athletes so let’s open our eyes to the changes in sport, society and the 21st century. Let’s embrace each athlete for who they are and rather than drag them in to the grey of the majority let’s push them and their individuality in to the limelight to celebrate their differences.

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