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Football is now seen as a legitimate sporting pursuit for girls and women. AAP/Julian Smith

From tomboys and butch dykes to anything goes: how women’s image has evolved on the footy field

This week the AFL announced the eight teams that have gained licences to play in the first national AFL women’s competition, catapulting girls and women’s participation in football into the national spotlight.

Women have been playing Australian rules football since the early 20th century. They’ve also played in structured leagues (at least in Victoria) since 1981.

But the widespread acceptance of women as capable and elite footballers is a relatively new phenomenon, largely fuelled by the recent support of the AFL media. The AFL is encouraging women who were once relegated to on the sidelines to get involved, or send your daughters.

Historically, opposition to girls’ and women’s participation in football has been less about whether they were physiologically unsuited to the sport, and more about discomfort with female masculinity. As gender studies expert Barbara Baird writes, sport has:

… historically been the site of public anxiety about women’s gender and sexuality, and their development of unfeminine muscular bodies.

Women who played football were thought to lack femininity and transgress gender norms, and were stigmatised as lesbians. Such negative labelling of female football players as “butch” and “dykes” served to uphold traditional gender norms and male dominance and dissuaded many from taking up the game.

While men and women may have different physiological strengths and weaknesses, their capacity to play sports shouldn’t be dictated by fear of injury.

There is some evidence to suggest women may be more prone to sporting injuries than men. Women are more likely to get ACL injuries and concussion, for instance. Men, however, may be more prone to fractures.

But there is a general lack of understanding why this may be so and research is needed to better understand how to prevent injuries in both sexes.

Some girls and women may embrace masculinity through the full contact aggressive nature of the sport, and simultaneously wear make up. AAP/Julian Smith

When modern women play Australian rules, they’re encouraged to embrace the intense physical, full-contact nature of football. In doing so, they embrace masculinity, aggression and competitiveness – traits traditionally associated with men and masculinity. But these days, they face less stigma for doing so.

In fact, the way women who play football experience gender has changed dramatically over the past few decades. My research shows there is a wide and fluid spectrum along which gender is performed on the football field, where different degrees of masculinity and femininity are embraced.

Some girls and women may embrace masculinity through the full-contact aggressive nature of the sport, and simultaneously wear make-up. Others embody masculinity through their development of muscle mass while shaving legs and armpits.

Until now, the female body hasn’t been perceived as a “real” football body – which requires players to be male and muscular. This is likely to have deterred some women from taking up the sport. Now, with the rise of elite-level female football, female figures can equally be revered as legitimate footballing bodies.

The emergence of an elite female football league means young people can now grow up seeing women embraced and recognised for full-contact, physical pursuits. It means that it will be “normal” for girls to embrace what has typically been considered “tomboy” activities.

The demographic of girls and women playing Australian rules football may not have changed, but society’s lens of gender seems to have shifted; we are one step closer to gender equality.

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