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Feminism breaks a sweat

ByLucy Stevenson

Jan 27, 2015

We’ve all seen the classic “feel the burn” sports advertisements on TV: gushes of sweat, bodies covered in mud, and moments of near collapse from absolute exhaustion. Yet, as the Telegraph recently admitted, “We mostly only ever see men in such an unaffected light”. Thanks to the recent ‘This Girl Can’ campaign introduced by Sport England, this is all about to change. Directed by Kim Gehrig, the woman who brought us the memorable “you’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties” IKEA advertisements, the campaign video is being rolled out on television and cinema screens up and down the UK. Focusing on the exercise stories of seven real women of all ages, sizes and stages of ability, this 90 second advertisement sets out to challenge the conventional media message to women that the key goal of exercise is to achieve an idealised, unattainable body type.

As an organisation that spends approximately two million pounds a year on sport infrastructure in the UK, it has been widely noted that advertising is a departure from Sport England’s usual spending choices. So why this campaign? The aim of this advertisement, to reduce the significant gender gap in sport, comes from research findings that two million fewer women than men aged 14 to 40 are taking part in exercise in the UK.

This disparity between the sexes is almost non-existent in other European countries, which has prompted further investigation of why so many women are holding back from sport; the same research found that 75 per cent of those women surveyed admitted they want to be more active. Jennie Price, the CEO for Sport England, stated that before the launch of the campaign, researchers explored why so many women thought sport was not for them. Although accepting that some of the reasons, such as time and cost, were familiar territory, Price acknowledged that “one of the strongest themes was a fear of judgement”.

In response to this research, the Guardian recently noted that women often face “cultural assumptions about femininity that prevent them from engaging in sport and exercise”. These cultural notions that pressure women to appear feminine whilst exercising were echoed by the words of Helen Grant, current government Minister for Sports and Equalities. In February of last year, Grant stated that for women, “There are some wonderful sports you can do and perform to a very high level”, whilst looking “absolutely radiant and very feminine”, citing cheerleading and roller-skating as examples. Campaigners from the Everyday Sexism Project explicitly critiqued this statement, with Laura Bates, the project’s founder, claiming that: “It’s really the wrong approach to suggest that the only way for women to get involved in sports is to be girly and feminine”.

With GLAMOUR magazine’s recent ‘Say No To Sexism in Sport’ campaign citing that ‘67 per cent of British sportswomen fear their looks are valued over their sporting achievement’, it’s clear that the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign goes further than targeting women who only exercise in their leisure time.

In February of last year, Rebecca Adlington reflected on this inherent judgement when she admitted that personal criticism was the hardest part of taking part in the Olympics. When interviewed by the Independent, Adlington cited the gender inequalities of media scrutiny in professional sport, stating that male athletes “don’t have to deal with comments on their weight or looks”.

The Guardian recently commented that the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign encourages women to ignore such personal criticism in sport and “shrug off their self-consciousness and exercise”. With the campaign video attracting more than one million views online within the first four days of its existence, perhaps it will work. Sport England stated that the rules of the campaign were always “no actresses, no models, no airbrushing”, resulting in the campaign’s casting director travelling from 5-a-side pitches in Manchester to jogging spots in London parks. Numerous media sources have noted that seeing a middle-aged woman in the advert exposing her cellulite, panting as she runs up a hill, is a refreshing break from the usual representations of female fitness.

A quick search on Instagram for the hashtag ‘thinspiration’ or ‘fitspiration’ will bring thousands of results of videos and images, mainly focused at women, for the fastest way to lose weight or to get the most toned arms and perfect abs. The portrayal of women’s exercise through the media often carries a dangerous message: your body is not okay as it is.

Campaign posters have been unveiled alongside the advert featuring slogans such as “I jiggle therefore I am”. Many praise this shift of perspective, with the Independent commenting that: “Keeping fit should be about health, endorphins, fun”, and that “nothing should ever be about how to simply achieve a narrow beauty standard”. Similar support for the campaign has been expressed by numerous celebrities. Clare Balding explained that the advertisement is an attempt to reach out to women who may think that sport is not for them, stating that: “The most powerful way of doing that is showing women who look like you doing it and don’t be afraid if you wobble, we all wobble.”

However, there have also been suggestions that the campaign does not go far enough in tackling gender inequalities in its depiction of exercise. A recent article in the Guardian noted that the video “still plays into the norms of objectifying female flesh”, with Missy Elliot’s “Get Your Freak On” blasting out as the advert opens in a swimming pool with a behind view of a woman in a bikini. Despite the women shown appearing more relatable, the same article noted that, “These bodies, jiggly or otherwise, are just another form of objectification in a popular culture already saturated with sexualised images.”

The campaign’s title has also been criticised, with suggestions that older women, including those featured in the video, may not appreciate being addressed as a ‘girl’, thus undermining the campaign’s empowering intent, and rendering it patronising.

Such criticisms are valid, and it is worth noting that the language of the campaign could be altered in order to engage with the entire female population. However, it is still a significant step forward for female exercise campaigns. Women’s Health certainly won’t be alone in their observation that the video makes you “want to rip off your onesie, superman style, to reveal a gym kit underneath and run into the street beating your chest and shouting ‘I AM WOMAN! FEEL ME SWEAT!’”


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