This past week, while reading an article out of the UK about how marketers struggle to advertise to women in regards to sports, exercise and physical fitness, they referenced a fantastic campaign put out last year by Sport England called “This Girl Can”. I hadn’t seen their video before, and watching it at my desk, I broke out in a huge smile at the message they were sending; I actually watched it several times throughout the week as motivation!
I loved everything about this video, from its brutally honest and unashamed portrayal of real women’s bodies to its feistiness. This video jarred me out of my sport-for-exercise mental rut and reminded me that at their core, sports are FUN, even for us grown-ups.
It was the adult women’s version of what Girls in the Game teaches our girls during programming every day. And it fought all the negative media stereotypes that girls and women face. Girls in the Game is an all-girl organization because there is a big gap in participation in sports for girls, especially in urban areas. We firmly believe that this is not only due to a lack of opportunities in money-strapped schools and communities, but also due to the stereotypes and pressures that marketing places on girls. There are so many lies that our girls hear from the TV, social media, commercials and ads they consume every day.
- Sports are for boys; girls aren’t good at sports
- Exercise and physical activity are to lose weight and achieve an idea body type (get that “thigh gap” and post about it on social media)
- You should look sexy while playing sports; sweat is unattractive!
- Sports are just for naturally athletic girls; if you don’t have talent, don’t play
Written out like this, these lies seem blatant, obvious. Who actually says anything like this? But in reality, marketing campaigns across the world blast these messages loud and clear. According to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, women and girls make up 40% of participants in sports, but only receive 4% of the media coverage (sports are for boys; girls aren’t good at sports). And how many of the exercise commercials aimed at women are about losing weight with perfectly fit models selling the product? If we actually see women doing physical activity, they are svelte, sleek, perfectly toned body types glistening beautifully in the sun as they achieve all of their exercise or sport goals
Just type “female athlete” into Google Images and you will see a whole lot of women in sports bras or bikinis with perfectly toned bodies. There are a handful of real-life female athletes that pop up as well, but the majority of the images are the pop culture idea of what a female athlete should look like (the vast majority of them being white). Because of this type of marketing, so many girls and women feel shame when it comes to sports or exercising. As the original article I read put it, “Despite its rising stock, marketers are yet to fully grasp how to empower women to exercise without feeling bad about their bodies.”
What was so unusual about the “This Girl Can” video was that I saw myself in it, breathing hard as I fit in a run in between getting home from work and dinner. Or myself struggling to get back into sports after life throws my normal health habits for a loop. This video celebrated sport and exercise; it didn’t shame.
At Girls in the Game, we tell girls that an athlete is anyone who plays a sport or participates in physical activity. All girls can be athletes, whether they’re playing basketball or doing yoga by themselves; being an athlete is not based upon your skill level or natural athletic ability. It’s based upon doing, going out and playing. And, we tell them that exercising and playing sports is just plain FUN! We do everything we can to remove that sense of shame that seems to taint girls’ sports. Just take it from one of our Teen Squad members. They lead workshops for our younger participants, and when she was asked what she wants girls to feel as a result of these workshops, she answered, “I want girls to be confident about themselves. I want them to feel no type of shame while they are playing others.”
Let’s be honest, media and marketing are slow to change. We might not be able to demand they change their messaging overnight. But we can like, share and repost those fantastic images that celebrate women and girls as they play sports. And we can help the girls in our lives begin to work through the myriad messages of shame and blame they receive when it comes to sports, or anything, really. Giving them the tools necessary to analyze the media they take in the first step to thinking of themselves as athletes. This girl can!