The ‘This Girl Can’ campaign is still about our bodies

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‘Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox‘ goes the latest Sport England campaign designed to encourage women to take more physical exercise and feel better for doing it. Did I say feel better? What I, or rather the ad appears to suggest is that even during sport and physical exercise, we women apparently never escape the confines of our sexuality and the (presumably) male gaze – even when we are sweaty and really really busy doing something else. Women may feel free in the gym but really we are still in chains.

Some of the words and images used suggest that a womans sense of self must incorporate an awareness of our sexual attractiveness as we participate in sport. This surely runs counter to an important goal of physical exercise-  transcending the limitations of body and psyche caused by our conscious and subconscious thoughts. I cannot see any other explanation for the use of the curious term ‘fox.’ Surely sports should allow us to walk away from the travail of worrying about how we appear to others and we should only be judged, if any judgement is required at all, on our sporting prowesss and achievements and nothing else?

This Girl Can, a campaign launched by Sport England aims to encourage more women to take up sport and physical exercise and is backed by celebrities including Clare Balding, Dame Kelly Holmes and Sally Gunnell. It kicks off with a TV commercial peopled by women of all shapes, sizes and ages participating in a raft of sports and physical activities. Created by the ad agency FCB Inferno, the 90 second ad only uses ‘normal’ women set to Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On and is backed up by a nationwide poster campaign with said same women from all walks of life with banner slogans such as the aforementioned pig/fox and ‘I jiggle therefore I am.’

Back in the late eighties, even misogynistic anti semite Mel Gibson, or rather the character he played in ‘What Women Want’, working on a sporting ad campaign with costar Helen Hunt, came to the conclusion that sport should allow a woman the time to shrug off her self consciousness and psychological chains. We appear to have moved on very little from this (albeit imaginary) scenario.

Nobody is under any illusion that female athletes are judged solely on their sporting ability and we have only to look at the bile directed at Rebecca Addlington regarding her looks to see that. And the way they are spoken about in the press is still very much predicated upon their looks and sex appeal as are some of the endorsements and contracts they attract. Any pride in their physicality, hard work and the success it brings is marred by constant reminders that it is female physicality and therefore it must be appraised sexually and aesthetically.

This Girl Can continues our obsession with female flesh, encouraging us to disregard the fact that we wobble and jiggle, have cellulite and uncontrolled flesh spilling out of our clothing. The fact that we are depicted as casting off our shackles- our Spanx, control tights and body taming underpinnings, to let ourselves take up a bigger unfettered space in the universe is undermined by the drawing of attention to those perceived flaws, whether or not it is us that sees them as so, or a sexist society.

Jennie Price, chief executive of Sport England talked about some of the barriers to the participation of women in sport:  “One of the strongest themes was a fear of judgment. Worries about being judged for for being the wrong size, not fit enough and not skilled enough came up time and time again. We want to address that.” Yet the video, despite being beautifully shot, still worships at the cult of the body, objectifies the bodies of those filmed and makes those gazing upon them passively complicit with this. Whatever the intent was to redefine what kind of female body is acceptable, the campaign is still concerning itself with parameters and makes no attempts to defy convention.

If female flesh mattered not one jot in the gender scheme of things it would go unmentioned as it does in sports campaigns aimed at men which tend to highlight the skills, prowesss, work and effort required. A mans appearance is related very closely to utilty and functionality, ideas rarely associated in advertising about or aimed at women. They don’t use male flesh to tell men they want them to not focus on their flesh and they do not invoke an unwelcome gaze. Even more importantly, campaigns aimed at men do not tell them they need to disregard their physical flaws, either imagined or actual. By saying ‘disregard’ you are stating that there is something TO disregard and the psychology of self consciousness, of shyness and body unconfidence will hone in on that like a javelin.

Equally important is the worthiness and higher moral purpose that must come attached to many female activities, including what we’d imagine as something relatively uncomplicated- sport. Where is the argument for exercise for the sake of exercise? Exercise that is enjoyed purely for the simple pleasure in physicality it generates? Instead of a pure and uncomplicated relationship with their corporeal selves, women are encouraged to take part in order to strengthen friendships, manage and reduce the stress caused by work, parenthood and caring whilst improving our emotional and physical strength. There is no strong case made for pure unfettered, unintellectual and unanalytical pleasure, no case made for total abandonment to the testing of ones body against standards that have nothing to do with how it looks to others. There is no permission for women to exist solely for themselves nor are we permitted to exist in the moment purely for that moment, free from intrusion.

This campaign has good intentions but at the end of the day, it is still reminding us that we women have a mountain to climb when it comes to equality in sports and it is not handing us the best equipment with which to climb it.

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2 thoughts on “The ‘This Girl Can’ campaign is still about our bodies

  1. Thank you for writing this – I hadn’t seen that particular slogan, but I had been feeling a bit uncomfortable with the basic line (‘girl’ makes me feel a bit awkward). You’ve helped me figure out why.

    1. Yes, the use of ‘girl’ is galling too. Would we use ‘boy’ to refer to adolescent and adult males? Thanks for your comment.

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