My daughter is pinching her stomach as she looks in the mirror. She swivels around, checks herself from behind. She sighs.
"Mama, do you think boys will like me?" she asks, eyes squinting.
She is 9 years old. Nine years old and already worried that her body won't measure up. Worried that because of her perceived (and imaginary) flaws, she will not attract whomever she feels she should. Her figure, not even fully formed, is already a liability.
In another room, her 10-year-old sister sings, I may be bad, but I'm perfectly good at it, while she shimmies around her room in her underwear and a "bra" she doesn't require, her eyes coated with glitter from a craft kit.
Ah, modern girlhood ... a paralyzing hybrid of self-regard and self-loathing, all wrapped in a Toddlers and Tiaras taco of premature sexualization. There are many folks to blame for the psychosocial nonsense that leads little girls to view their bodies as either wells of disappointment or snares for the gazes of strangers -- or, too often, a toxic combination of both. But finger-pointing is useless. (Just ask Congress.) The show-us-your-everything train has left the station. X-tina can't go back into her genie bottle, baby. Nor can Katy Perry's whipped cream. Which is why now, more than ever, our girls need to play sports.
Athletics are the antidote to the whole prickly mess of body image. By being more in your body, you become, ironically, less about your body. When you focus on your finish line, your goal, your game, your jump shot or your team, you stop focusing on your cellulite, your gut, your crooked nose, yourself. You stop caring about what strangers think of your boobies. You begin to recognize your actual strengths.
For girls, this is nothing short of a miracle. To be in this culture of constant physical scrutiny with no real-life touchstone is unmooring to everyone, especially children. But to sink a basketball? Kick a field goal? Ace a serve? Those achievements are real. You didn't buy them at the mall. You work for them. And as such, you can feel them, count them and claim them. So, too, can you claim the body that made them possible.
Here is what girls can learn about their bodies from sports that they can't learn anywhere else:
• That their thighs, butts, shoulders, calves, etc., have value beyond their attractiveness to suitors.
• That physical fatigue is a gift.
• That they can withstand pain.
• That they are tougher than they imagined.
• That they can routinely kick ass.
This last point is the most critical. Boys are born being assured of their hardiness, their resiliency. Girls are born being told to "be careful." And that they are "pretty."
Serena Williams is pretty. But she could also crush your skull with her belly button. Something she likely would have never fully understood had she not played sports.
There are no mirrors on the basketball court. No one is telling the U.S. women's soccer team that "their asses look big in those jeans." Sports offer a reprieve from the Girl every girl thinks she is supposed to be. They allow women to use their bodies as God intended. Not to catch a mate, but to catch a fly ball. Sports convert criticisms -- I hate my giant shoulders! -- into assets -- All the better to pin you to the mat with!
The benefits are far-reaching and permanent. Girls who learn how formidable their bodies can be take a lot less guff in later years. You don't see many tragic doormats who used to be high school MVPs. When you play sports, you learn intimately and accurately what your body can do and what you in turn are capable of, and you carry that knowledge with you always. Strength breeds dignity. And dignity keeps girls off the pole.
No matter how hot their bodies are.
Allison Glock is an ESPN senior writer and contributing editor to Garden & Gun Magazine. She played seven sports in school. Her daughters, in keeping with the cosmic comedy of the universe, have thus far refused.