As children we love to run, play, skip and fall; we don’t care if we look silly, we aren’t exercising to lose weight or reduce our risk of heart disease. There’s no ‘sporty’ or ‘not sporty’, it’s just fun to move your body. But something is going wrong: at some point using your body stops being a completely normal part of life, and becomes anything from a chore to inaccessible, humiliating, or even frightening. We aren’t teaching young girls that sport is relevant to them.
And yet, as women our bodies are capable of extreme feats: we can create, grow and deliver another living person – and bear all the pain associated with this! Women have evolved to be strong in a way that surpasses most displays of manliness. So what is it about growing up that means women don’t end up feeling comfortable with sport in the way that men do? According to the 2014 Sports England Active People Survey two million more men play sport or exercise than women in the UK, yet 75% of women say they would like to do more. Some of the barriers to this are universal between the sexes: time, money, health. But for women, the fear of judgement or not being good enough was the strongest.
For years the word ‘sport’ has been at odds with femininity, but there’s something massive happening to women right now, a quiet (and sometimes less quiet) revolution. Women all over the country are ditching the boundaries placed on us by society, and ourselves, and are getting out their and getting active; and This Girl Can has been a massive part of this. Launched in 2015 by Sport England, this campaign aims to inspire women and girls to get moving, regardless of age shape or size. The original advert featured 90 seconds of every type of women enjoying a huge range of sports set to a Missy Elliot track: they ran, jumped, danced, tackled, sweat buckets but more importantly they look like they’re having the time of their lives.
The campaign is “edgy and it is disruptive but it’s basically celebrating all those women and girls who have decided, ‘Damn it. I don’t care what people think about me. I’m going to get out there and do it’” (Sports England CEO, Jennie Price). The impact has been huge. This Girl Can has been credited with encouraging 1.6 million women to start exercising, and a noticeable decrease in the gender gap across sport in the UK.
The campaign has had some criticism, such as this article in the Guardian ‘The This Girl Can campaign is all about sex, not sport’, which starts that while the campaign portrays ‘real’ women’s bodies, it still “plays into the norms of objectifying female flesh”. From sport being almost a dirty word, we are currently in the midst of a fitness craze. Type in #healthyliving to Instagram and you are bombarded with images of thin, tanned women and their impossible abs in bikinis or skimpy sportswear; at best it is a modernisation of page 3, at worst it is thinly veiled #thinspiration that is just as damaging to women as the idea that exercise is not relevant to 50% of the population.
The difference? This Girl Can focuses on the functionality of our bodies, and not their appearance. But at the same time it does not shy away from how we look. The photos and videos normalises the way a range of different bodies look when they take part in exercise: yes, that’s right – some of us jiggle, get red faces and most of us sweat! Whilst professional women’s sport is beginning (albeit painfully slowly) to gain visibility, as inspiring as it is, it isn’t quite as relatable. For those of us that are held back from exercise for fear of how we will look this is massive. We see these strong, powerful women absolutely killing it, and they look fantastic. And you think, “yeah, I could do that”.
I couldn’t be more aware of how lucky I am to be a young woman at a time of such empowerment, what would have happened to me if I’d been born 50 years earlier? Would I still be running marathons, lifting weights, or having adult swimming lessons? Sadly, I don’t think I would. So we need to spread the word. The most staggering part of the This Girl Campaign is the creation of an enormous community of women supporting other women; the hashtag #thisgirlcan trended at number three on the day it was launched and is still used thousands of times every day. Whether you find your support online, or at one of the many women’s groups, there is a whole army of active ladies out there waiting to encourage, inspire and celebrate your achievements. Come and join us!
I am absolutely honoured to have my story featured on the This Girl Can website, you can have a read here if you’d like.