At This Girl Can, we’ve spoken to thousands of women about their relationship with sport. One piece of feedback which has repeatedly reared its head is: “PE scarred me for life.”
Many of us bear the scars of the forgotten gym kit – and the horror of being forced to run about in your pants. Despite tackling triathlons over the last few years I wasn’t the most natural of athletes at school and P.E. for me, was an exercise in not being as good as everyone else. Most women seem to have painful memories of school sports.
Over the past few days we’ve seen research in the news from the Youth Sport Trust and Women in Sport that revealed the gender gap in physical activity in school-age children. They’ve found that, by and large, teenage girls aren’t exercising as much as boys. This perfectly matches with This Girl Can data on women in their later years. Teenagers, twenty-somethings and middle-aged women all demonstrate the same gender gap. Scratch the surface, and we see the roots of the problem laid bare: this gender gap stems from female insecurity and self-consciousness – and that often seems to begin at school age.
I’d like to say I’m shocked by the statistics, but it’s this gender gap in sport that we’ve been addressing since the launch of This Girl Can in 2014. And whilst we’ve enjoyed plenty of success (inspiring 2.8m women to get active since then), we realise that closing the gap for good is a huge and – if we’re being honest – truly tough task. To create meaningful and sustainable change, the whole experience of being active- from delivery, to media coverage of active women – needs to change for good.
The whole purpose for This Girl Can is to help women manage this anxiety that rears its head through different stages in their lives. You may already be familiar with Sport England’s research, which highlights the main barrier into exercise for women: the fear of judgement.
Women can carry this fear of judgement from a young age and this can exhibit itself in a variety of ways. Some women might dread the thought of being viewed as sweaty, with their body jiggling and face red.
Others fear not being very good or, at least, not as good as everyone else – either from a lifetime of feeling that they’re not ‘sporty’, or from not having been part of a team since their own school or university days.
Additionally, some women worry that they’re being judged for not spending every ounce of spare time with their families or partners, or that they’ll be seen as slacking off for using their lunchtime to attend an exercise class.
Since unleashing the campaign upon the world, This Girl Can has only ever featured real women in our campaigns, who have pushed past this fear of judgement and each have their own particular story to tell. It’s a case of knowing that if women see people like themselves being active, it sparks a certain confidence in being active themselves, which comes regardless of size, shape, age, ability and so on. Similarly, if women only see unrealistically flawless stereotypes in the media, they’re bound to be left feeling inadequate. The likes of Dove, ASOS and This Girl Can have championed the use of real women in advertising, but we need more torchbearers for this philosophy. We know that women feel more empowered and inspired when they see REAL women being active. I would love to see more brands get behind this movement.
One of the women featuring in our campaign is Catherine, 67, who had hated sports ever since school, made worse by the fact that she came from a family of sports-lovers! She told us how her brother would play her left-handed at tennis, and she’d still lose.
It goes to show that those early experiences can completely put an individual off sports in later life. Catherine now sees herself as an “active” person, taking part ‘medium’ level classes of British Military Fitness, a form of exercise she didn’t come across until she was in her 60s.
She’s not alone. We’ve seen many women who have as adults found the sport or activity for them. Take Lydia, 29 – another one of our women from the campaign who also hated PE at school – and at 4ft 10 thought she wasn’t ‘cut out’ for sports. After leading a self-confessed inactive lifestyle, she discovered roller derby seven years ago through friends. She found that her height actually works to her advantage – ducking and diving through the taller players, and now plays a key part of her ‘Rocking Rollers’ team.
This Girl Can works to help women like Catherine and Lydia, from all ages and backgrounds, manage their fear of judgement. This includes reassuring them that it’s fine to be red-faced and sticky, embracing all their wobbles – and it’s equally OK to be running around a sports hall in your pants (we’ve all been there).
Ultimately, while the fear of judgement isn’t anything that will necessarily go away at a given age, size or life stage, we hope that by normalising the fear of judgement and creating real role models, more women will feel supported and more confident. Once our audiences start to manage their fear for themselves we will see the gender gaps shrink. The younger they are able to do this, the better. Utopia for me, is seeing a ten-year-old strut out on a football pitch not giving a monkeys about how she’ll look or how she’ll play and staying that way for the rest of her life.
The world needs to become a place where women never develop fears of judgement. We need to realise that this begins at the beginning.