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.