We are now approaching the end of Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ Week, an annual highlight of a new campaign which seeks to encourage women and girls to move more, regardless of their shape, size and ability.
The initiative is a recent one, launched in 2016 and born out of incriminating evidence that suggested that, at almost every age, there were circa two million fewer women than men regularly playing sport in the UK, despite the fact that 75% reported that they wanted to be more active (Active People Survey – data for 12 months to October 2014). Why this disparity? Further research by Sport England may answer this: women were reluctant to turn their sporting ambitions into reality owing to fear of judgement. In particular, concerns about their skills and appearance were keeping women out of competitive sports and even out of the gym.
In response to their findings, ‘This Girl Can’ launched a ground-breaking series of advertisements featuring women of all sizes and shapes engaged in exercise, sweat droplets and cellulite in tow. It argues that it is the first campaign of its kind, seeking to tell the stories of real women in sport and using images that are more truthful than the idealised, stylised examples of airbrushing we are now used to being drip-fed. The campaign appears to be successful: the flagship spot has not been viewed more than 37 million times online; analyses show that 2.8m women who have seen the campaign have taken part in sports as a result. Now, as the campaign moves into its next stage, Sport England will be working closely with a handful of different sporting bodies to continue to increase participation.
The drive to get women and girls into sport is a valuable one, and the efforts of ‘This Girl Can’ should be applauded. However, the fact that it has taken a government body to remind the sporting industry that perfection doesn’t sell is a telling reminder of the chasm between the reality and the rhetoric surrounding authenticity in marketing. Moreover, it is an unhappy truth that even at the highest levels, women still face barriers in sport. Lest we forget that it was 2012 before women were able to compete in every event on the Olympic programme, 2014 before they could play professional cricket in England, and 2016 before they could join professional rugby teams. This is obscene, but the unfortunate norm; a quick flick through the history of women’s sport reveals that milestones run late vis-à-vis men’s sport.
Moreover, the incredible performances of female athletes who do manage to get onto the field still occur in a male-defined sporting sector where female stars all too often have to tackle marginalisation and sexualisation of their sporting performance and leadership skills. Take, for example, Jessie Ennis-Hill, undoubtedly one of the best heptathletes of all time. Pictures and reports proclaiming her “golden girl” status all too often are based on her looks, model poses and domestic relationships in lieu of her athletic achievements.
Equally, who can forget Andy Murray’s retort to an interviewer at Wimbledon this summer, reminding him that Sam Querrey was the first male American player to reach the semi-final of a grand slam since 2009. In the eyes of the media, it seems, sport is a male domain, unless it involves looking at women’s bodies. Indeed, according to Women In Sport’s most recent survey, women’s sport makes up only 7% of all sports coverage in the UK. Given this context, it is unsurprising both that the average girl and woman worry about being judged in sport and that the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign’s advertising strategy has had such success. Nonetheless, we need to do more. Throughout history, feminist work has helped to open up the sporting world for females while, at the same time, transforming gender-related rights and athlete welfare. We must continue in this vein, at both elite and grass-roots levels.
It shouldn’t be that Karren Brady’s – vice-chair of West Ham United – words still ring true: ‘In sport a woman has to be twice as good as the men to be thought of as even half as good.’ With the support of an educated and galvanised public, ‘This Girl Can’ might go some way to rectifying this.