‘This Girl Can’ is a new campaign by Sport England, encouraging women to get active. It’s also the most heartening piece of fitness propaganda I’ve seen in a long time. If you went by what you see in the media, the only women who exercised would be sylph-like, long-legged, sweat-free stock photo models bearing the expression of a lobotomised clown.
By contrast, the women in this ad are totally normal. Normal bodies, normal faces, normal reactions to their sport. Here we see them run, swim, punch, spin, kick, hit and shimmy their way through 90 seconds of… intensity, I guess. They’re focused on what they’re doing, rather than how they’re looking, and they couldn’t care less if they ‘sweat like a pig’ along the way.
The advert was commissioned in response to research by Sport England, suggesting that UK women are less likely to participate in physical activity than men. Two million fewer women aged 14-40 regularly exercise or play a sport. This is despite the fact that 75% of those surveyed would like to be more active.
Sport England CEO Jennie Price said: “Before we began this campaign, we looked very carefully at what women were saying about why they felt sport and exercise was not for them… One of the strongest themes was a fear of judgment. Worries about being the wrong size, not fit enough and not skilled enough came up time and again.”
The ad aims to dismantle these fears, making a deliberate bid towards inclusivity. These women may not be the fastest or the fittest or the thinnest, but they’re doing something that makes them feel powerful. One of the corresponding billboard ads reads ‘I’m slow but I’m lapping everyone on the couch’. Another, ‘I swim because I love my body. Not because I hate it.’
These are the sort of messages that actually do encourage people. Not the ‘fitspo’ stuff on Instagram and Tumblr, which uses thigh gaps and cheese grater abs as motivation to work out. For a lot of people, such images cause them to give up before they’ve even begun.
Physical activity isn’t some cloistered world, only accessible to the sliver of the population who already resemble fitness models. Nor is it only valid as a punitive measure – a way of castigating yourself for failing to embody the cultural ideal. Most people will never look like that, and if sport is sold to them as an aesthetic corrective they’re likely to feel short-changed.
I mean, look at the actual process of exercise. It isn’t pretty. You might wobble, you might grunt, you might turn red, you might terrify small children with your drunken buffalo gait. When photographed at the wrong moment, you might look like a corpse being dragged from its grave against its will.
And yet as anyone who enjoys exercise will confirm, this stuff is far from the point. If you find an activity you love, then that brings its own rewards. Changes in body composition are some way down the list.
From a personal standpoint, I wish I’d linked ‘getting fit’ with ‘enormous confidence boost’ many years ago. Despite a serious treadmill habit, I refused to run outside for fear of what people would think. I didn’t dare try a yoga class, because I wasn’t some chirpy, juice-cleansed zen master, and I didn’t attempt the weights at the gym because I had the upper body strength of a dishcloth.
For the past couple of years, however, I have run or done yoga or weight trained almost every day. This is because I’m far too malcoordinated and antisocial for an actual sport. It’s also because I love it – running for the endorphins, yoga for chilling me out and weight training for amping me up. And while I am certainly motivated by performance (I treated my first chin-up with all the fanfare due a returning war hero), the benefits I derive are independent of any mad skillz or PB.
It’s a travesty that so many women feel shut out from physical activity. Generally, we don’t have the same culture of ‘sport for fun’ that men do – there’s no real mainstream equivalent of Sunday league football or five-a-side with your mates. If anything, the parallel would be something like shopping or beauty treatments (yay for artificial gender dimorphism!). When we exercise, it’s often couched as a self-loathing bid to get thin.
If this ad can persuade a few women otherwise then all the more power to Sport England. In a culture saturated with unattainable images of fitness, where ordinary people fear ridicule for moving around in public, it’s refreshing to have a major campaign trying to shift the balance. Could it be construed as condescending? Possibly so, but I reckon it’s worth the risk.
Seriously – just check out the girl walloping that punchbag at 1:12. I’d far rather that for fitspo than some immaculately made-up model with a faintly terrifying grin.
British freelance journalist living in the Netherlands