A recent CTV article was very excited about a new Disney short called Reflect, about a young ballet dancer named Bianca, and its body positivity message. As the resident fat ballerina on this blog, I had to watch it.

Hilary Bradfield, the creator, says “I feel like I’m a body positive person in principle, but when it’s on a personal level, it’s a lot harder to be body positive. I feel this deeply: despite repeated self-talk, I sometimes hate how I look.

It’s so short that the introduction by the creator was almost as long as the film itself so I watched it several times. I wanted to love it. The animation itself was well-done. It had the kind of uplifting Disney “girl overcomes barriers and has a happy ending” story that makes me smile.

But somehow it didn’t, quite. Was it too short to engage me? Too unrealistic? I think it was the latter, which is deeply weird; it’s Disney – of course it’s unrealistic!

Bianca was too small/young to be dancing en pointe (kids should be at least 12 or so to prevent permanent damage to growing bones). Triple pirouettes are hard. And she was so round compared to the stick figure dancers in her class! Those other kids would not have been able to stand in real life, let alone dance.

In some ways, I wanted Bianca to do more ordinary things and be happy, and her classmates and teacher to at least notice her. I know that wouldn’t have been as much of a Disney story that satisfies kids.

But maybe it would have resonated more with adult fat ballerina me who has already learned not to notice anything in the mirror except posture and position. The fat ballerina who will never be any good dancer, but who loves dancing anyway.

Sorry – no pictures of Disney’s Bianca, so you get me in a black leotard, at the end of a successful single pirouette. I have a huge smile.

I hear that others love Reflect and see themselves in Bianca. I am curious about what you think. Am I putting too much onto the shoulders of this young dancer to be a role model but also somewhat ordinary? What is the right balance of expectations for a plus sized or otherwise different person with talent?


Girls don’t fall out of love with sport… they are driven out of sport by structural barriers

The title of this blog is a quote from vice-chair of the South African Women’s Basketball Association, Kornelia Semmelink, at the South African Women and Sport Foundation last week, courtesy of Dr. Sheree Bekker, who researches gender-inclusive sport.

I follow Dr Bekker on Twitter, and here are a few more of her thoughts from that conference:

“Which actions/measures must we take to enforce long lasting changes in women and sport? Huge focus on building and supporting next generation leadership, transparency, values, and a national policy that has teeth.”

A national policy that has teeth might be something like Title IX in the USA. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, Title IX was established in 1972 to provide everyone with equal access to any program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance, including sports. This means that federally funded institutions, such as public schools, are legally required to provide girls and boys with equitable sports opportunities. Before Title IX, one in 27 girls played sports. By 2016, that number was two in five.

Dr Bekker also noted “Let’s remember that it’s not only about elite sport. It’s about community sport, organizations, sport for social good, health and peace.”

Four Black and one Asian girl hugging and smiling on a sports field. Most of the girls are wearing blue T shirts, and one is in red.

That point led me to recall past efforts to encourage sport for all children as part of international development efforts. While those efforts seem to have faded away, I did come across an article prepared for a side event to the Women Deliver international conference in 2016. It was on the power of girls’ involvement in play.

Here’s what Women Deliver had to say: “The evidence is clear that sport and physical activity provide a myriad of physical and mental health benefits….perhaps equally important, sport represents a mold-breaking departure from the traditional scripts of femininity that girls are often given. Well-designed programs can begin to transform gender norms, challenge traditional roles, and break down gender stereotypes.

By increasing girls’ visible, active presence in the public arena, sport can transform the way girls think about themselves and the ways their family and communities perceive them. In short, sport can be an empowering force in girls’ lives….We know that sport provides girls’ access to female mentors and role models, as well as an expanded network of friends, group membership, and social capital. These connections are extremely valuable and often lacking for girls in many settings.”

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of this blog, these reflections remind me of what drew me to it in the first place. Though it started out as a blog about being as fit as possible by 50, it has morphed into something much more. Here’s to another 10 years of reflection and advocacy for the rights of people who identify as girls and women to enjoy sports and healthy lives.

Two white hands holding glasses of fruit juice as they make a toast, with a blue background


Underage high performance athletes – striking a balance

The biggest story of the Beijing Winter Olympics may have been that of Kamila Valieva, the 15 year-old who was phenomenal in the team figure skating event, but then accused of having failed a doping test two months before. Despite the test results, she was allowed to compete in the individual event, where she stumbled to a fourth place finish after being widely expected to take the gold.

The story didn’t end there. Her coach’s harsh reaction to her performance was widely condemned, including by the head of the International Olympic Committee. That coach is known for producing medal-winning athletes who retire, often in their teens, often following injuries, questionable diet practices and overtraining,

The gold and silver medal winners were also teenagers who trained under this coach. That was the part that really struck me as tragic. Alexandra Trusova, who placed second, broke down after her performance, crying “I hate this sport. I won’t go onto the ice again”. This gifted athlete, who had just landed five quadruple jumps, may never skate again. For non-skating fans, the first quadruple jump in competition was by Elvis Stojko in 1998. Few skaters can do these jumps at all, yet she landed five in the space of about flour minutes.

The pressures on talented youngsters to excel at sports is something I struggle with. On one hand, as a kid who never got to test the limits of her ability but dreamed of being an Olympic backstroker, I want those athletes with the talent and drive to have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

On the other hand, I have watched the horrific case of Larry Nasser, who abused generations of young and vulnerable gymnasts. There have been cases of doping involving young teens in various sports for decades, presumably with the involvement of their coaches or other adults. A recent Globe and Mail investigation found that one in five Canadian national team athletes faced “questionable coaching methods, a toxic sport environment, chronic overtraining or unjustified pressure to be thinner”.

Should there be higher age limits for athletes? I don’t know. Some young athletes can do extraordinary things, but they could also be at higher risk for injury because they haven’t finished growing yet. Those quad jumps are a prime example. They put incredible pressure on joints, and may do lifelong damage.

Should we encourage kids to try lots of different things, potentially limiting their chances to excel? I don’t know the answer to that one either. As an adult, I am very happy to do lots of different things, but I have friends who are equally happy focusing on being the best they can be at one sport. My kids were equally split; one played every sport he could, while the other focused like a laser on becoming a dancer.

Should we be taking better care of these young athletes? Absolutely! No matter what path they take, I want them to become adults who enjoy being active, have fond memories of growing up, and possibly become coaches themselves for the next generation of high performance stars, or TimBits hockey teams.

This all feels very inconclusive, so I am going to end with a shout-out to someone who was mostly overlooked in all the skating drama: Kaori Sakamoto, who won the bronze medal with a performance that former Olympian Johnny Weir described as “wonderful reckless abandon and beautiful technical skills”. Her routine was choreographed to celebrate the power of women. The 21 year old was the only medallist who appeared truly happy with her result, and she says she wants to keep skating as long as she can.

Kaori Sakamoto, in a multicoloured costume, skates at the Japanese Nationals in December 2021. She has a huge grin and is clearly having fun.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She is a terrible skater, but enjoys it anyway and loves exploring neighbourhood rinks and the Canal.

cycling · fitness

Ruby is Riding the Rollers!

Some days I miss rollers. Here’s me eight years ago. I loved that the London house had narrow hallways.

Mostly though I used rollers at the velodrome in the center to warm up. When it was busy, there was no room to warm up on the track.

No photo description available.
Sam on her rollers. The only truly dangerous bit was when a dog dashed by!

I got thinking about rollers the other day when in the same morning the photo above came through my newsfeed–thanks Facebook memories–and I saw Ruby’s Roller Challenge for the first time.

Who is Ruby? She’s a charming confident 12 year old cyclist, who is very popular on YouTube for her roller tricks. Ruby is also a big promoter of riding bikes for people of all ages.

Read more about Ruby here.

Read Riding Bikes with Ruby in Bicycling Magazne.

Here’s an excerpt: “Like most kids, Ruby began riding around age 6. Unlike most kids, she has more than 21,000 followers on Instagram, 6,000 on Twitter, and 3,600 on YouTube. She’s been sponsored by two of the biggest bike companies in the world, first Specialized and now Trek, and was named by a U.K. cycling charity as one of the 100 most inspirational female cyclists in Britain. (She’s also the youngest person ever to make that list.) This past summer, she received a Global Child Prodigy Award, and in October, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson honored her with a Point of Light award, a designation that pays tribute to inspirational volunteers.

Ruby is best known for her astonishing ability to perform tricks no-handed on indoor rollers. She has also interviewed such cycling celebrities as former world champions Peter Sagan and Lizzie Deignan, as well as pop artists like the English singer Natasha Hamilton and the actor Will Mellor.

And all this is because of another thing you should know about riding bikes with Ruby Isaac: She adores it. At a time when the grownups in cycling are busy bickering over blood doping and sock height, Ruby Isaac is out there raising money for charity, getting more people on bikes, picking up litter during her rides—and having a blast along the way.”

Ruby has been up to this for awhile. Here’s Ruby two years ago doing tricks at age 9!


Oh, hockey. Why are you so bad at this?

As someone asked on Twitter, “Is this really the best that you can do to try to make the sport attractive to girls?”

Image description: A young white girl with blonde hair wearing a bright pink hockey jersey is apply pink lip gloss.
Look good. Feel good. Play good.

Some responses:

Others said:

There’s so much to celebrate for girls and women’s hockey. This doesn’t help.

Wowwwwww. How about a pic of her playing hockey? Way to continue to push a stigma around appearances.

Are you suuuuuuure that’s the way you want to grow the game?

What do you think?

accessibility · charity · cycling

The power of bicycles in changing the world for girls and women

See Wheels of Change: The Impact of Bicycle Access on Girls’ Education and Empowerment Outcomes in Rural Zambia.

“Previous evidence suggests that providing bicycles to school girls reduced the gender gap in school enrollment in India, but little has been known about the impact of bicycle distribution programs in sub-Saharan Africa and whether such programs can increase girls’ empowerment. In rural Zambia, researchers partnered with World Bicycle Relief (WBR) to evaluate the impact of bicycle access on girls’ educational and empowerment outcomes. The study found that the bicycles reduced commute time, increased punctuality to school, and reduced the number of days girls were absent from school by 28 percent in the previous week. The program also improved measures of empowerment, including girls’ sense of control over the decisions affecting their lives (i.e., their “locus of control” increased). Researchers did not find evidence that the program impacted school dropout or grade transition. “

Everyone loves this Susan B. Anthony quote: “I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.”

Here on the blog we tend to think of the connection between bicycles and feminism as a historical thing. I’ve written lots about that and I’ve given quite a few academic talks on the connection between the history of feminist activism in the west and the history of bicycles. See my post about the anti-bike backlash of the late 1800s here:  Bicycles: Making good women go bad since the 1800s.

However, bicycles are still playing a role in improving the lives of girls and women all over the world. In many parts of the world, the choice is between biking and getting a drive from parents. But in many other parts of the world it’s the possession of a bicycle that makes getting to school possible at all. Often girls don’t have access to bicycles (and as a result, schooling).

Related posts:

Wadja: A girl, her bike, and her dreams

Will bike riding in Saudi Arabia change the way women dress?

Give the girl a bike!

As an orphan living with her grandmother in Zambia, 12-year-old Tamara has a simple life, but not an easy one. See how her story changes with the power of a bicycle.
clothing · fitness · gender policing

Girls, skirts, shorts, modesty, and movement

Bright pink girls’ running skirt with blue waistband

Have you ever found an issue that brings out all the views?

Mine this week is girls’ school uniforms and exercise. New research shows that girls’ clothing is part of the story about the play gap, why even young girls move less than boys. Their clothes are more restrictive and there are modesty concerns about young girls getting their rough and tumble on in skirts and dresses.

Here’s this explanation of girls’ lack of movement from Australia news:

“When they get to high school it’s becomes harder to get girls active during recess and lunch than it is for the boys. It’s not surprising then that girls participation rates in physical activity drop off significantly in their early teenage years.

People talk a lot about how girls behave in schools as though it’s providing vital evidence for a genetic-like inability to be naturally active and into sport. “Girls simply aren’t interested in sport” we’re told, “boys just naturally want to run around whereas girls don’t”.

But it’s the girls’ uniforms that are acting like physical shackles. The majority of school uniforms still see girls wear dresses that fly up, blouses that allow little arm movement, stockings that sweat and ladder and long skirts that don’t permit the freedom of mobility needed to run and kick without tripping over in painful schoolyard shame.”

So some of the debate is about relaxing dress codes that require girls to wear skirts and dresses. Fine.

But some schools have gone further. A school in Melbourne has made shorts and pants mandatory for everyone.

It’s still telling girls what to wear, say our Facebook readers. That’s the overwhelming response there. There’s also the worry, given the cultural context, that there is some Islamaphobia going on. But the school says they’ve done it to encourage girls to move more.

Of course, in schools with school uniforms they’re already in the business of telling girls and boys what to wear. Boys can’t choose dresses either. I’m not a big fan (okay, I hate) gender binary school uniforms. What about kids with non-binary gender identities?

So there’s that issue too, I think.

Then there are the other routes that people have taken to either let girls move more in skirts or protect their modesty. What’s their motivation? It’s hard to tell.

We’ve written about this before here on the blog, about schools that require girls to wear shorts under skirts and dresses. See How clothing rules and modesty obsession limit girls movements.

Other people have views too. See Please don’t slut shame my toddler.

What do you think? About what? Well school uniforms, for one. Telling girls and boys what to wear. Being active in skirts and dresses. There’s a lot going on here. How do you think it through?

Blue and White checked school uniform skirt


Girls and bikes together again?

Last week I was a speaker at an event all about celebrating women cyclists. We were talking about how to get more women on the road on two wheels. Better cycling infrastructure obviously. Safer roads for everyday cyclists.

One of the questions I asked was where in the pipeline do we lose women as cyclists. While there are twice as many men as women riding bikes in Canada, the gap between men and women starts when we’re young.

Outside magazine asks Why Aren’t More Girls Riding Bikes?

Partly it’s that children in general are riding less.

“According to the federal program Safe Routes to School, the number of kids commuting on bike or foot to school has plummeted from 48 percent in 1969 to 13 percent in 2009. In the CDC-funded survey, parents cited distance to school, traffic-related risks, and weather as the biggest barriers to biking and walking. Factor in distracted drivers and kids’ increasingly busy after-school schedules, and it’s no wonder that biking is such a tough sell.”

But as we know around here it’s also gendered. Girls’ participation drops off more than boys’. There’s such a thing as the play gap.

One explanation for kids moving less is the ‘protection paradox.” Parents and teachers worry about kids getting hurt and so encourage less risky play. Activities like biking and walking to school are seen as dangerous. It’s a paradox because the kids are less well off overall as a result of moving less. But the “protection paradox” is also gendered. Parents and teachers worry more about girls than boys. And that maps the result.

More from Outside: “New research presented last year shows that girls’ participation in riding drops off noticeably in adolescence. The study’s author, Jennifer Dill, an urban studies and planning professor at Portland State University, surveyed 300 families in Portland to find out how their attitudes and behavior toward bicycling changed over the course of two years. Dill found that the girls between 11 and 16 who lost interest in biking shared common concerns: They felt less safe riding in traffic (even in areas with designated bike lanes), they were uncomfortable riding alone and reported having trouble finding friends to join them, they believed cars were safer than bikes, and they thought biking took too much time.”

At the panel, my daughter talked about learning to ride as a child. She talked about riding with a bike club in Australia that taught kids to ride and race on a track. Her favourite drill was learning to ride side by side with another cyclist holding on the other rider’s shoulder. She also liked learning look back and shoulder check while continuing ahead in a straight line. These are skills that help with cycling safety and give beginning riders confidence. It’s great to teach them to kids at an age when they aren’t so afraid of falling and they’re not so self-conscious about getting things wrong.

I think this kind of skill development is especially important for girls.

I love girls on bikes. Like Ruby Isaac.

Guest Post · soccer

Society Empowerment through Sport (Guest Post)

Sport has the power to change the world.  It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.  Sport can awaken hope where there was previously only despair.  Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand.  –Nelson Mandela, 25 May 2000

Oyugis is a town of about 10,000 in a rural part of western Kenya.  The vast majority (72%) live in poverty.  Only 5.6% of the households have piped water; 3.3% have electricity.  HIV/AIDS is rampant: 25.7% of the county (Homa Bay) population is infected (the highest rate in Kenya) and 61,000 households include an orphan.  This has a profound impact on the community – 48% of the population is under 15.

The conditions are especially difficult for women and girls. 12% of girls have a live birth before age 15.  Most primary schools (K-8) in the region do not have toilets, so when girls reach puberty, most stop attending school.  Sanitary products are not available.  As the statistics indicate, many of these girls end up pregnant and with HIV/AIDS. What might one hope to do in such circumstances?  How is change even conceivable?  Soccer.

I met Festus Juma in 2010.  He deeply understands the power of sport for community development.  Having family in the Oyugis region, he also understands the power of soccer to motivate local youth.  Festus directs the Society Empowerment Project (SEP), based in Oyugis, which leverages soccer/football to teach life skills in areas such as HIV/AIDS prevention; health and sanitation; agriculture & nutrition; reproductive health; peace building; and substance abuse.  Girls, in particular, gain opportunities to become fit and strong, to build friendships, and have contact with adult role models.  The program also prepares them for youth leadership through training in coaching, refereeing and tournament management.

A current goal of the SEP is to register a girls team in the Kenya Premier League.  Doing so will enhance their status in the region.  Stronger and better educated girls and women will reduce domestic violence, improve reproductive health and well-being, and decrease HIV/AIDS infections.  This is a proven strategy for community development and it changes lives.

Together with my son Isaac, I have been working with the SEP since 2011.  Isaac played soccer through high school.  Seeing a photo of children in Oyugis playing soccer barefoot on dirt patches, he was shocked by the comparison with his teammates who had several pairs of cleats and fancy uniforms.  We began to collect used cleats, uniforms, and other equipment to send to Kenya.  (The team featured on the SEP facebook page is wearing Boston Blast jerseys!)  It is not cheap to send equipment to Kenya.  It is not easy to build a sustainable program that empowers girls in a region where not even food and water is easily available.  But sport motivates and strengthens those who participate.  And it awakens hope.


You can reach Festus at: and he can provide information about how you can send used (or new!) equipment to the SEP, and about other ways to help.  Donations can be made on the SEP website.

Sally Haslanger is Ford Professor of Philosophy and Women’s & Gender Studies at MIT.  She works on feminist and critical race theory.  She is an adoptive mother, a social activist, and recently was client of the month at her gym!