I may be based in Scotland, but over the last few days my attention has been drawn to the new campaign from Sport England titled This Girl Can and the huge amount of comment it has drawn since its first airing in a prime time slot earlier this week.
The campaign, which is supported by the likes of Sally Gunnell, Clare Balding and Dame Kelly Holmes, aims to encourage more women to get involved in sport and be more active. The crucial thing is that unlike the images we are used to seeing of “perfect” supermodel bodies clad in designer kit with abs of steel and not a trace of sweat or red faces, none of the women in this advert are models or actresses. Instead, they were drawn from parks and pitches around the country to ensure that “real” women were featured simply doing what they do. As the website states:
“This Girl Can celebrates the women who are doing their thing no matter how they do it, how they look or even how sweaty they get. They’re here to inspire us to wiggle, jiggle, move and prove that judgement is a barrier that can be overcome.”
And there’s sound thinking behind that. Research by Sport England reveals that 2 million fewer women than men are active, but around 75% want to do more. Given that this gender gap is not true of other countries, it begs the question, what’s holding these women back? Jennie Price, CEO of Sport England, has shared the results of the research carried out on this very topic:
“Before we began this campaign, we looked carefully at what women were saying about why they felt sport and exercise was not for them. Some of the issues, like time and cost, were familiar, but one of the strongest themes was a fear of judgement. Worries about being judged for being the wrong size, not fit enough and not skilled enough came up time and again. Every single woman I have talked to about this campaign has identified with this, and it is that fear of not being ‘good enough’ in some way, and the fear that you are the only one who feels like that, that we want to address.”
Unfortunately, this rings true. Even this week when I spoke to the beginners at Steve’s Zero to 5k running group and asked them if they felt like runners yet (because they sure as heck looked like runners to me!) they all said no, they didn’t feel like runners because they weren’t fit enough, exactly the sort of thing referred to in the quotation above. But surely if you run, you’re a runner? They are just at a different stage in their running journey to those they consider to be “real” runners, and that’s a mindset they need to adopt.
Yet more and more, women feel that they are being judged on their appearance: magazines are filled with images of the “perfect” body and “quick fixes” to reach an often unattainable (and probably air-brushed) target; sport and exercise are increasingly seen as “tortures” to lose weight and get a “bikini body” rather than an as an enjoyable part of a healthy lifestyle. I have read countless news stories recently about women (and girls in particular) not wanting to participate in sport because they would get red-faced and sweaty, something that is rarely shown in those magazine articles full of models in full and immaculate make-up (I see women at the gym similarly made-up. Are they really going to break a sweat?) and almost every day I hear comments from women reluctant to exercise because they “don’t have the right kit”, “need to lose weight first” or aren’t “good enough”. Women are being led to believe that they are not good enough if they don’t look like the images they see, often leading to fad diets which can in turn foster unhealthy, unrealistic and unsustainable relationships with food and exercise, something Steve noted in a recent blog post.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. I have written before about inspiring women. For me, inspiring women are not just athletes such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Jo Pavey and Victoria Pendleton, but they are also ordinary women who are grabbing life by the horns and enjoying every moment. They are women who are juggling jobs and families as well as finding time to exercise. They are the unsung heroes and everyday athletes who prove that exercise is not about being thin, it’s about being healthy. Our bodies are wonderful things, capable of amazing feats, but we must look after them.
And that’s why This Girl Can is so refreshing. There are no models, no actresses and no airbrushing. There are just ordinary women of all sizes, shapes and abilities getting fit, getting out of breath and getting sweaty. They are the sort of women that you see every day and they are proving that you don’t have to be a supermodel with designer kit, rock-hard abs and a high degree of skill to get involved, you just have to be prepared to give it a go. They are women who feel empowered to take part regardless of what they look like, and they are clearly having fun doing so. That’s just the sort of image we need to see, and it’s exactly the sort of image we are so rarely presented with. So while the campaign may have drawn criticism from some, it’s easy to see why the vast majority of the reactions have been positive. Fingers crossed it helps encourage more women to get active.
What do you think of the campaign?
What do you think puts women off exercise and what can be done to encourage more to take part?