This WOMAN didn’t realise she couldn’t: the problem with #ThisGirlCan

Something has been bothering me about the ‘This Girl Can‘ campaign but I’ve been struggling to put my finger on it. At first I thought it was because of the infantilising language coming from a campaign that’s supposed to be empowering women rather than making them feel like little children –  but after a trip to my local swimming pool today, I’ve realised it’s more than that. ‘This Girl Can’ pisses me off because I never thought I couldn’t in the first place.

I have tried to like it, I really have. Anything that encourages more humans to get active has got to be a good thing right? The campaign describes itself as:  ‘a celebration of active women up and down the country who are doing their thing no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their face gets’. They host free swimming sessions at my local pool as a result and the Council seem to have organised a host of events, including many women only sessions to try and get us involved in a wide variety of different sports. This is an undeniably positive development right? Right?

Only, by calling the campaign ‘This Girl Can’, you’re sort of implying that a lot of ‘girls’ think they can’t  and need to be persuaded that sport is something that they can do too. Furthermore, you’re implying that if they don’t think they can, this is because they’re worried about looking silly rather than the real reason which has more to do with sexism and a perception that sport is for men.

To improve female participation in sport, this is what needs to be challenged. A lot of women I know run marathons, ride their road bikes for miles and miles, climb mountains, do Triathlons, swim in lakes, rivers and seas, beat the blokes at tennis and canoe for the country. They get red and sweaty because everyone does when they are moving around and it had probably never occurred to them before to worry about this. All this, despite being told from a young age that boys are better at sport, no matter how hard we train or how hard we try. We play sport in defiance of these stereotypes and sometimes it’s bloody hard work.

It starts early. My daughter’s pre-school divided the 3 year olds into sexes so that they could compete against each other at sports day. I still don’t know why they felt the need to do this as I’m pretty sure there’s not much of a gender difference at this age. Now she’s a bit bigger she likes to play football at lunch times. The boys let her join in because they have to, but they say things like “Don’t pass to her, she’s a girl”. Unless times have changed more than I realised, when she’s older she’ll get segregated for most sports at her secondary school and it will be pretty clear which ones are considered suitable for girls. When I was at school, we weren’t allowed to play football (although I have yet to find a reason why?) and it was made very clear that the boys thought they were better than the girls at everything. We played the boys at hockey one day but were flummoxed by their constant fouling and cheating whenever the ref’s back was turned and they kicked our arse.

In her amazing book, Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine outlines how social conditioning is shown to influence test results in boys and girls. When girls are told that boys normally do better at maths tests, the results indicate this and the boys perform better. When girls are surrounded by empowering and motivating messages about being able to do anything they want however, they perform better. The messages girls get from society therefore not only shape their experience but can quite literally be the difference between success and failure. If girls grow up being told that they’re not as good as boys at sport, then chances are, they won’t be. Imagine if they were always told that they were the best ones at sport? How might this change things?

One of my favourite past-times is rock climbing and I like it precisely because it’s a fairly unisex activity. I often feel that I perform at around the same level of my male climber friends as long as I train as hard as they do. Sometimes they’re a bit braver than me but I’ve got two kids so I’m pretty careful not to break myself. However, I have had to endure being told to ‘man up’ fairly often, been astounded to discover the concept of the ‘belay bunny’ and suffered arguments online about how men are ‘always better climbers than women’, despite this being blatantly untrue. I don’t let it get to me because it doesn’t occur to me that I won’t be able to climb as well as the next man (or woman) and I just get on with it.

For women to feel more confident in their own sporting abilities, it’s this underlying sexism that needs to change. The sexism that spawns a campaign that tries to pretend that women don’t like sport because of the way they look (because that’s all we care about after all, eh?) when really it’s because they’ve faced a lifetime of being told that they’re not as good at it as blokes. The sexism that led to the staff at our local pool telling my mate that they weren’t going to provide lane swimming in the women only sessions because ‘most women’ didn’t want to swim in that way. The sexism that means that all sport featured on TV is assumed to be male by default. It’s either ‘women’s football’ or ‘football’, rarely ‘men’s football’. The sexism that means by 6 year old girl can’t play football because none of the boys will pass the ball to her.

Without addressing this, then nothing will change. In order for girls to be more involved in sport, women’s sport needs to be covered by the national media. Newspapers, magazines and web sites aimed at women need to feature our female sporting heroes doing their thang for a reason other than simply wanting to lose weight. Sport needs to be an end in itself and too often it is simply presented as an alternative to dieting. Segregation at school and the idea that some sports are for boys while others are for girls has also got to go. For as long as boys and girls continue to be separated, this false division is created and reinforced and becomes more and more difficult to be overcome. It’s not simply about persuading women that they don’t have to worry about what they look like when they exercise because this just implies that we should be worried. This Girl Can seems to suggest that to change things, we just have to have women only sessions and a bit more confidence whereas I would suggest societal attitudes towards sport need to fundamentally change. This means the boys and men need to get on board too.


15 Comments Add yours

  1. StarOfGrace says:

    I totally agree. I generally ignore these types of campaigns. I know that I can do what ever I want… and I tend to do everything. However, if it starts to get into our children well then we are all screwed. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. freerlives says:

    Yes, it somehow slips into being the girl’s problem not a social problem.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Woman As Subject says:

      That’s exactly it! No analysis of what leads women to feel like that in the first place.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    I agree totally. I can’t abide children’s programming that messages about “everyone thinks the girl can’t ride the horse and then it turns out she’s GREAT at it!”. When my little girl watches it, she doesn’t hear the social-myth busting (because she hasn’t been propagandized by the social myth yet). She hears “everyone thinks the girl can’t” and is like, what? Why do they think that? People think that? really?

    She’s at an age where she is busy internalizing “what people think about boys and girls” and messaging that says “People think girls suck BUT” is pretty much like “I’m not a racist BUT”. The real message is “people think girls suck” [just as the real message on the latter is always “I’m a racist”]

    I’ve begun to think it’s actually just a sneaky way to make sure children hear the old messages in the guise of giving them new messages. Like “in case you hadn’t heard? PEOPLE THINK GIRLS SUCK. not ME, of course. I don’t think that. but PEOPLE? In general? They think GIRLS SUCK.”

    It goes along with the fact that in elementary school teachers, parents, pretty much everyone just sort of rolls their eyes indulgently when boys “inevitably” start telling girls they can’t play, they won’t play with them, they don’t want to be friends with them… When they’d die of shame and horror and leap to intervention and parent teacher conferences and school assemblies if white kids said the same things about children who were black, or abled kids about disabled kids, etc.

    One last tangential rant — at least some parents deal with the stigmatizing of girls by making sure everyone knows THEIR little girl wouldn’t be caught dead in pink, with a tutu, consorting with a princess fantasy, or anything “girly”. I have yet to meet a parent who tells me with jolly bonhomie that THEIR little boy hates soccer, trucks, dinosaur print pyjamas, he just “can’t stand” that kind of stuff and they “never” buy it for him. “Boyly” isn’t even a word. Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. ruth34 says:

    I get where you are coming from, but I’m fairly sure this message is based on evidence that women ARE put off sport because of fears about how they look- certainly that’s a big deal with girls at secondary school. I’ve read loads of stuff from women runners about the abuse that they face. As for ‘girls’ loads of women will identify with that just as men might identify with ‘lads’. If you want to shift people’s perceptions you have to start where they are and anything that gets women and girls more active and more confident has to be good


    1. Woman As Subject says:

      I’m one of the women runners that faces abuse every time she runs. I get shouted at from cars and told to ‘keep going love’ all the time. It is always by men. Always. I’m not saying that I think the campaign is terrible, it’s just that it doesn’t address the underlying issues and seems to blame the ‘girls’ themselves rather than systemic sexism which is what I think is to blame. But yeah, I agree, if it does work then that’s a good thing. Maybe it was based on loads of great research and I’m totally wrong. The amount of feedback I’ve had seems to suggest that lots of women feel the same however.


  5. Emma Thirkill says:

    I am glad to hear that you never thought you couldn’t. But i was always told i couldn’t, its taken me a really long time as a fat women to learn to do sport. I never ever see people like me doing it and ‘this girl can’ shows me people just like me having a great time doing sport. I just to get so scared at the gym i would have panic attacks. I need things like this advert, fat women need this advert. We are constantly told we are no good and to fix our bodies. Those women you talk about doing triathlons are used to people not having a problem with them doing sport. I cant even get a trisuit to fit me. They simply don’t sell them. This is why we need this ad.

    The only time you ever see women like me doing sports is when they are being shamed in to looking like everyone else. It is so nice to see this campaign. This campaign doesn’t shame me, it doesn’t tell me to change. I’ll never be good at sport (I have dyspraxia too) and this campaign tells me that’s ok. I just need to have fun. Yes, we need to change the underline cause of the sexism, of course we do, but we also need to start somewhere. I am glad you have never expereinced what I had and if you had, maybe you would think differently.

    I love it.


    1. Woman As Subject says:

      Well I’m really pleased to hear that it’s helped you and I’m sorry you were told that you couldn’t do sport. Nobody should ever be made to feel like that. Yes, I was pretty sporty at school and I recognise that I’m not really the target for the campaign as I am active anyway. And I do like that the campaign does feature normal women doing sport as this is what I believe in. I think sport is for everyone. I just object to the way that it implies that the fault lies with women when I think the fault lies with society. But thanks for your comment. Definitely food for thought.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fair enough, the blame shouldn’t be with women. We should be tackling the cause but at least its a start.


  6. Notoneofthecrowd says:

    You are also missing the fact that a lot of the time it’s “girls” putting other girls down. Have you been in a high school P.E. lesson lately? The comments that come from the IT girls and Queen Bees can be more vile and poisonous than anything the boys can come up with!


    1. Woman As Subject says:

      I do agree that girls can police each other as much as boys do but I still think this is more to do with patriarchy than individuals. Sport is seen as something that boys do and this is what needs to change. Of course, girls will also internalise this. And yes, I’ve been in a secondary school recently. I work in them. Thanks.


  7. L. Charles says:

    I agree with Ruth34 up thread. I read about this campaign when it first launched (over a year ago IIRC). It was a direct response to some research clearly revealing that young women / school age girls were likely to avoid sport because of getting hot and sweaty and in a mess. They felt awkward about that. OK they shouldn’t feel that way (when broadly speaking boys or men don’t). But these were the results of the research.

    There may be other, better suited campaign for other groups but this is specifically designed to target a certain group who DO feel that image is a barrier to sport and exercise.


  8. Great post. I’d never thought about it as much as this! I tag my IG photos from Parkrun and half marathons #thisgirlcan because I want to inspire other women. I’m just a normal 43yo mum of three and I run. I’m not super-fast, but I’m above average and I do it just because I enjoy it and it keeps me fit – and anyone can do that!
    My daughter will go to a girls’ grammar next September, where they do football and rugby in lessons, in addition to the usual girls’ sports. At my son’s mixed grammar, the boys don’t play football, but the girls do! There is encouragement in schools for kids to partake, but they definitely need to see positive coverage in the media too.


  9. Rebecca says:

    Hi I think you’ve missed the point of the ads and I don’t think they are directed at you so maybe you should just try not to take offence? I think they’re aimed at people like me- with parents who always made sure I was careful, don’t run you might hurt yourself, don’t spoil your clothes etc. And we had no sport at all at secondary school due to the teachers strikes. I am mid 40’s and these adverts were the first positive messages I could identify with exercise and they inspired me to start and keep on running with a friend. I’ve had to keep it quiet from my parents as I know they would still be telling me it was dangerous, made the mistake of telling them if gone to beginners squash once and never heard the end of it! You sound lucky enough to have been brought up confident and ready to take on anything. Not all of us have.


    1. Woman As Subject says:

      Well that’s my point though really – it’s societal messages that tell girls they shouldn’t do sport? Like your parents? And if you think my background was lucky well then I’d suggest you read the rest of my blog. But yeah, sport was one of the things I could do and it did give me confidence which is why I think it’s so valuable. It’s been really interesting to hear people’s differing reactions and I’m genuinely pleased some people have found it helpful. After all, it’s just what I reckon isn’t it? And other people are very welcome to disagree!


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