Mainstream media coverage of women’s sports has declined over the last twenty years, currently accounting for only 1.3% - 1.6% of total overall content (Cooky, Messner, & Hextrum 2013). As a lifelong athlete, a mother, a writer, and a photographer, I've been struggling for months now to understand this statistic since I heard it early this year. With this stat burning a proverbial hole in my head (and in my heart) at the beginning of 2018 (and admittedly still burning at the end of the year), I ended up unexpectedly spending much of 2018 deeply immersed in the world of visibility issues in women's sports. But what were the issues, exactly? From my little corner of rural Canada, in the tiny office in my basement, I set out to do more research.
At one point, in a seemingly unrelated statistic, I learned that adolescent girls are dropping out of sports at an alarming rate, despite having more opportunities than ever before. I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a link between the two issues. Was there a connection? In this digital age, when we're slammed with thousands of visuals on a daily basis, is it possible that young girls would have a better chance of staying in sports if they could see the older equivalent of themselves online? Is the lack of visibility in women's sports directly related to the drop-out rate among our young female athletes?
Do we have the power to change their lifestyle trajectories through photographs?
One night, I put a post on social media about adult female athletes, and how I believed their visibility plays an important role in the lives of young girls. I asked for adult female athletes and coaches, current and retired, to reach out to me to discuss the accomplishments and challenges they’ve faced over the course of their careers, with the hope they’d allow me to photograph them participating in their sport. When I woke up to almost one hundred messages in my inbox, from all over the country, I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt strongly about the topic.
So as they contacted me, I started speaking with them - one at a time, in person and online. I listened to their stories and quietly gathered and interpreted their underlying messages. As of now, December 2018, I've logged countless hours sifting through messages, and I wonder how many more are to come. Each woman I've photographed has been uniquely remarkable, and each one has a story. Some stories are happy, others are profoundly sad; all are different. The one trait they all share though, is a motivation to continue on despite there often being no logical reason to. Why do they do it? Why do they keep braving the abuse? The lack of recognition? The irresponsible journalism, and the inappropriate comments?
We all have our reasons.
The women I’m meeting are from all walks of like. All ages, all body types. Some have been involved in sports their whole lives and some are relatively new to the sports world. I’ve met Olympians, and I’ve met beginners. And while their skill sets may be unique and wildly different from each other, I’m learning these women all share some common traits - traits that often transcend sports. Determination, perseverance, dedication, patience, and responsibility. Yes, responsibility. Responsibility to show young girls how sport can benefit them. How passion alone can fight fear. How sport is a viable career choice. And how to persevere despite unequal payouts and unbalanced career paths. These women are incredible role models for young girls, and my goal is to be their voice.
I don't know where this project is going to go, but the support I've received to continue my research and documentation of these women has been nothing short of astonishing. As I sit now with my piles of photographs and "research," I can't help but notice what these women have gifted me this year. Perseverance comes to mind. And community. It may be cliche, but I truly believe we can accomplish great things if we work together. These women are extraordinary, and my goal is to photograph and interview a lot more of them over the course of the next year. I’m hoping my collection will eventually end up in the hands of young girls, who will see these role models and think to themselves, “hey, if she can do it, I can do it.”
Our girls are watching us. Our nieces, cousins, sisters, neighbours, daughters. If we don’t show them what they can be, and what they’re capable of, who will?
(Fact: if a girl doesn’t participate in regular physical activity by age 10, there is only a 10% chance she’ll be active at age 25. www.caaws.ca).