“You played well—for a girl.” This was not what I had wanted to hear after a 90-minute game under the scorching heat. It wasn’t the kind of praise that any athlete would have wanted to hear. Dangling at the end of the remark was an unwelcome yet familiar phrase. It glared and blared at me, as if being a girl was a permanent dampener on my abilities as an athlete.
This all began when I was absolutely mesmerized by the sport of football growing up. There seemed to be magic behind how the best players dominated the pitch with so much power. All around the world, people called it el jogo bonito or “the beautiful game”, and I completely understood why.
Despite the magnitude of the sport, football, in all of its glory, also happens to fall under the dreaded category of male-dominated sports. When one thinks of the perfect footballer, their image of the ideal athlete is an Apollo-like figure—a man. Everything around the sport, like many other things in the world nowadays, is seemingly owned by men. I learned this the hard way when I began to train and play for my school.
It was never uncommon for schools to prioritize male sports programs, giving them bounds of both financial and moral support. In my freshman year of high school, I still remember how the girls’ team had to settle for cheap, generic jerseys while the boys’ team had theirs tailor-made. It didn’t make a huge impact on how we performed, but it was still a textbook example of how differently women are treated in male-dominated sports.
For a sport where we had to shed the stereotype of girls being demure and passive, it was also a challenge to be comfortable with our femininity. I played football at a time where I was still coming to terms with how my body was changing and so did other girls my age. We couldn’t control how our bodies were taking shape or how we moved. We cared more about making good plays, completing our passes, and not getting fouled out. But somehow, the age-old adage of what it meant to look like a woman still loomed over us. On top of everything, we still had to bear with catcalls as we walked to games and unsolicited judgments on how we looked. We were meant to have fun playing; we shouldn’t have had to worry about getting too dark or wearing shorts that rode up when we sprinted. Boys our age never had those problems.
My younger self barely even knew who to look up to in the world of football. While young boys had so many players to idolize, I didn’t. The closest I had to a role model was a doll named “Get Real Girl Gabi”. She wasn’t like the usual blue-eyed, blonde-haired fashion dolls that I’d see in toy stores. She had brown eyes and brown hair. Her skin was the exact same color as mine, tanned from hours of playing football under the sun. Instead of a purse and a convertible, she came with a miniature backpack, a ball, and football cleats. She wasn’t just someone I wanted to be, she was someone I saw myself in—but she was just a doll.
All these frustrations continued as I dealt with comments about how I was either too girly to be playing the sport or too boyish to be seen as a young lady. The idea of women taking up space in the world of sports was as far-fetched as it could be. I was left thinking that the only space saved for me in the world of sports was on the couch beside my grandfather when we watched football games.
In my senior year, I left football for good. I gave away my cleats and kept my old jerseys hidden in the back of my closet. It took me time to make amends with the internal struggles that came with experiencing misogyny in a sport that I thought was a safe space for me. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about finding closure when I found myself bawling over the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The sheer display of sportsmanship across different cultures was more than enough to make any viewer teary-eyed. But what I found myself inconsolably sobbing over was the moment when Hidilyn Diaz clinched the historical gold medal in Women’s Weightlifting. It wasn’t just a win for the Philippines. It was a triumph for all Filipina athletes in male-dominated sports. While the world fell in love with the likes of Nesthy Petecio, Margielyn Didal, Yuka Saso, and Bianca Pagdanganan, my heart went out to all the young girls watching these women perform to the best of their abilities. I knew that somewhere out there were young girls who were absolutely mesmerized by them and wanted to be like them too.
The world of sports won’t change overnight. But in the same way that Megan Rapinoe, my newest role model in the sport of football, celebrates her goals with outstretched arms and a proud stance, women will continue to take up space—one strong, empowered, and relentless girl at a time.