If you’ve been following me on Instagram, you may have seen that after much procrastination, I sewed my pointe shoe ribbons in preparation for my first ballet and pointe classes for the year. (Which, by the way, reminded me how much I dislike sewing. I wonder if I can swing sewing on ribbons as my ‘sew a piece of clothing for myself’ goal …)
The classes weren’t too bad. In fact, they were pretty good. I enjoyed being back at the barre again, moving through the familiar movements. My body didn’t complain too much. While I looked at my feet in my unbroken-in pointe shoes with a certain level of despondency during the various rising up onto pointe exercises at the barre, the bourrée-ing at the end made me feel like I was floating on air. I was “sweating like a pig and feeling like a fox”.
I love Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, which was in response to its finding that 75% of women want to be active, but aren’t, because they fear being judged on how they look, especially in relation to their physical appearance and their skill at their chosen activity (or lack thereof).
I know, I know – it was launched last month and I’m late to the party. I’ve been cogitating on the criticism the campaign attracted. ‘Girl’ is patronising. There is too much focus on sex and objectification of the female body. There is not enough focus on other positive attributes of physical exercise, such as strengthening friendships, reducing stress and increasing physical and emotional strength. Women should just get over themselves. (‘Criticism’ is misleading – in some cases, ‘poisonous vitriol’ is a better description.)
Focussing on the more constructive criticism, I can see where they are coming from. It can rankle when women are referred to as girls, while men are … men. And sometimes it feels like you cannot move without being bombarded with images of goddess-like women being used in advertising with sexual overtones.
It is easy to tell women to push down their fears of judgement, buck up, get over themselves and (to quote Nike) just do it. But it is not as simple as that. Being ‘girly’ is considered weak and frivolous: certainly not the attribute of a serious, respected adult. To do things “like a girl” is an insult. To be ‘boyish’ or do things ‘like a boy’ does not come near to having such strong negative connotations.
While took numerous dance classes all through my school years (building up a great deal of strength and athleticism), I also spent my school years trying to get out of compulsory sport, for the exact reason that prompted this campaign: I was worried I’d make a fool of myself. I still make Boy Robin hand me things rather than casually toss them across the room to me, because I’m embarrassed of my catching skills (or lack thereof).
This campaign cannot be all things to all people. There is never going to be a magic pill which will cause all women to wake up one morning, free of self doubt and ready to become athletic super stars in their own lunchbox. However, This Girl Can goes a long way to address the issue of women’s lack of confidence when it comes to exercise.
The campaign encourages women to embrace their bodies, rather than be ashamed of them. It reclaims the word ‘girl’ and makes it powerful. It argues you do not have to resemble a supermodel to be fit and healthy. You do not have to be an elite athlete at the top of your field to be active. There are ways you can fit exercise into your busy schedule and actually, you will feel good afterwards. With image after image of women of all ages and shapes obviously enjoying themselves as they sweat, jiggle and kick balls, I cannot help but want to get up and join them, despite all my misgivings about playing sport. That can only be a good thing.
I’ll leave you with another campaign with a similar premise: #Like a Girl, although this time aimed a young girls. Again, it has been subject of a lot of media coverage, especially after being shown during the Superbowl. It has also received a lot of criticism. (Pro tip: don’t get sucked into the comments below the video.) However, its core message holds true. No campaign will change women’s body image overnight or satisfy all critics, but between This Girl Can and #Like a Girl, we are headed in the right direction.