by Hugh Sullivan

Fewer women than men take part in sport in England, but 75% of English women aged between 14 and 40 say they want to exercise more. These are the founding facts that, according to Sport England, underpin a major current campaign, “This Girl Can”, with the stated aim of enhancing female participation in sport throughout the country.

In its press release introducing the campaign a year ago Sport England highlighted one key insight that seemed to explain why more women weren’t getting active, even though they knew they should and wanted to. It was “fear of judgment”. They didn’t want to get sweaty in front of other people, they believed they weren’t fit enough or good enough, they didn’t have the right equipment. Even the word “sport” had negative connotations for many.

“That’s where This Girl Can comes in”, proclaimed the release. “Our big message to women is that they come in all shapes and sizes and all levels of ability. It really doesn’t matter if you are rubbish or an expert. The point is that you are a woman and you are doing something. So whatever you do, and however you do it, remember…. This Girl Can.”

Five months later the high profile ad campaign which accompanied the release garnered a host of awards at the British advertising Creative Circle annual ceremony. The visuals feature women of both youthful and more mature age straining and jiggling as they exercise and compete to a hip-hop backing track of Missy Elliot’s “Get ur freak on” – “the complete opposite of the idealised and stylised images of women we are now used to seeing”.

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Well, not quite – this is the advertising industry. The “Hot and Not Bothered” rower may be sweating and gasping but she is young, fit and good-looking. And while it may seem a smart idea to reclaim the word “hot” from its sexual connotation it remains double-edged. To be fair there is a fair cross-section of ages and body shapes in the 90-second film clip – see http://somesuch.co/directors/creative-circle-awards-2015/sport-england-this-girl-can. However I can’t help wondering whether many women will watch it and decide that it does matter how you look when you are exercising. And that’s a difficulty which the campaign won’t solve easily.

I wonder also at the term “girl” in the campaign being applied to all ages. Might it not send a message, conscious or otherwise, that the purpose of physical exercise is to retain or recapture a woman’s youth? That’s regrettably a pathway to disappointment.

Lottery funding has been channelled to local providers to pursue the campaign on the ground, in the case of Hastings through the Council’s sports and exercise arm Active Hastings. And last November Active Hastings promoted and subsidised a host of local clubs, companies and venues to reach out beyond their existing clientele and draw in a wider range of female participants – “a week of fun and fitness for the women of Hastings and St Leonards” in their words. Over six days no less than 40 separate sessions of physical exercise activities, were cued, with fees, either for mixed sex or for women only, waived or discounted. Included in the schedule were aerobics, ballet, circuit and interval training, jazz dancing, pilates, trampolining, weightlifting, yoga and zumba.

There is a broad conflation here of “sport”, “fitness” and “exercise”? Are they essentially the same thing? Does it matter? From the point of view of getting women physically active I suppose it doesn’t. But Active Hastings has also embraced the idea that participating women will associate the idea of exercise with how they look doing it. Councillor Dawn Poole, fronting the Council’s input to the campaign as Regeneration, Communities and Culture Portfolio Holder, issued a further release during the week inviting women to take part “by getting active and sharing a photo of themselves being active via their Facebook or Twitter accounts using #thisgirlcanhastings….You can be on your own, in a group with friends, with your children, however you like as long as you are being active!” There will be prizes for shared photos.

Nothing wrong with that. Only most male sports participants that I know – and I am not talking here of elite or professional performers, merely of men (and boys) who like playing mainstream sport such as football, cricket, rugby, athletics, tennis, golf – don’t do so in order to keep fit or take exercise or stay young, let alone be pictured in the performance. If anything, it’s the other way round: they keep themselves fit and exercised in order to be able to play. Certainly few of us care too much what we look like when we are playing. The wearing of a new football kit or snazzy boots may still engage the narcissism of the immature, but looking good is more likely to attract ridicule: you’d better win if you attempt stylish dress or you’ll be written off as a “poser”.

One of my favourite sporting quotes is from the legendary Czechoslovak athlete Emil Zatopek who, when criticised for a running style in which he rolled his head from side to side with facial contortions of apparent agony, retorted – “I was not talented enough to run and smile at the same time”.

In short the essence of sport from a man’s point of view is not that it’s good for you, physically or otherwise, nor that you look good doing it nor that it’ll keep you looking and feeling good afterwards. All those things may be true, but they’re beside the point. Actually sport has no point at all except in the joy of physical competition, whether with an opponent or oneself. Is it different for girls – or women?