#thisgirlcan – despite the kyriarchy

This week, Sport England have launched a new campaign, called This Girl Can. The main thrust so far has been a tv ad.

Discussion about the ad has started. I haven’t seen much of it, but what I have seen has been about whether the ad is patronising. I’m so disappointed.

I really like the ad. It shows women of different ages, different sizes and shapes, abilities and disabilities,  different colours doing different types of sport and exercise from solo running to group fitness classes to individual swimmers competing against others to team sports. Some of the woman have athletic bodies, some of them do not. All of the women look like they’re working hard, all of the women look committed to what they’re doing, and all of them look like they’re enjoying it. This, to me, is an ad that says whatever your age, size, level of fitness or personal preference, there is a form of exercise for you.

Yes, it could show an even wider variety of activities. No, I didn’t notice anyone with a visible physical disability. Yes, the use of “girl” instead of “woman” irritates me. But in such an inclusive, varied, positive ad, those are minor quibbles.

Regardless of our weight or size, exercise is good for us, and any exercise is better than none. But while young girls are often as active as young boys, physical activity tails right off amongst teenage girls, and inactive teenagers are often inactive adults, and women generally do less sport and exercise than men.

Instead of bickering about whether or not this ad is patronising or tokenistic or objectifying or othering, let’s use this campaign as a way of opening up the discussion about why women and girls are less likely to exercise. For example, some studies have shown that teenage girls say they don’t want to exercise because they don’t want to mess up their hair or makeup, get sweaty or look “unfeminine” with visible muscles. Women earn less and have more responsibility for care of dependents and household tasks, therefore have less time and less money for exercise. Women are socialised into putting other people before themselves and often feel guilty about or unable to make time to do something for themselves. Some women live in cultures where sports clothing is not acceptable and going out is not frowned upon. Many women, including one I was talking to today, are anxious about exercising in public because of the risk of assault or street harassment.

You can make all the fantastic feelgood positive adverts you like, but until the societal and cultural barriers are kicked down, very little is going to change.So, we need more done to convince girls that their appearance isn’t the most important thing about them, and at the same time, more emphasis on exercise rather than diet as a way to control weight (I’m looking at you, women’s magazines, with your pages of juice cleanses and nothing about lifting weights). We need to see the media promoting a much more diverse range of bodies as attractive and healthy. We need safer public spaces. We need better employment opportunities and better pay for women. We need men to step up and do an equal share of the housework and care for dependents. We probably need more women-only facilities offering a wider variety of sports. We need fitness centres/gyms/pools/clubs/groups to do everything they can to attract and encourage a more diverse spread of women and girls.

If we want women to play, we have to level the playing field.

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