A mother runs through the park pushing a baby in a buggy, chatting away as she does: “Come on, baby, not far now.” Then we see a young woman learning to swim, one exercising in an outdoor gym, another hula-hooping in the kitchen, a group of friends on a trampoline. The images come thick and fast: black, white, pony-tailed, hijabed, older, younger, somewhere in the middle, to the glorious strains of Barbra Streisand belting out Don’t Rain on My Parade.
Do you notice any wrinkles, any dimples in their thighs? Hell, no! And if you do – this ain’t for you. This is for all those many women out there who avoid exercise because of that very fear, the fear of being judged.
The film is part of the latest phase of Sport England’s game-changing This Girl Can campaign, an attempt to close the gender gap between the number of men and women who are physically active. You might remember the first ad screened during Coronation Street on a Monday night in January 2015, to the soundtrack of Missy Elliot’s Get Ur Freak On and then shown in cinemas and online, with accompanying billboard ads: “I kick balls. Deal with it”, and “Hot and not bothered”.
There was something moving about watching normal women of all shapes and sizes exercise and have fun, get sweaty and look knackered. Why? Because it was so rare to see in the media, let alone in such a joyful way. I had a quiet weep when I first watched it and I wasn’t alone.
Jennie Price, the multi-award-winning outgoing chief executive of Sport England and the brains behind This Girl Can, cried, too. “And I never cry.” It was then that Price knew that she might have something special on her hands.
Price arrived at Sport England 11 and a half years ago from outside the sporting world. “Most people who work in sport have either worked in it all their lives or been exceptionally good at it. I was in my 40s, I’d always been very average at sport. I knew what it was like to be picked last. It wasn’t a bad background to have.
“Just before I joined an old colleague said to me: ‘The thing about sport is that you’re either in or you’re out.’ And that really stayed with me.”
When research revealed that 75% of women would like to do more exercise but that there was a huge emotional barrier – fear of judgment – as well as the usual suspects of expense and lack of time, the This Girl Can campaign was born. It immediately resonated with people, with the hashtag This Girl Can going on to transcend sport. And, most importantly, it worked – with strong evidence that it has had a sustained effect on women’s activity. Nearly three million women were inspired by the campaign to be more active, Sport England’s research suggests, and 1.5 million women either started or restarted exercise because of it.
But it didn’t reach everyone. Many women, feedback showed, thought that although the campaign looked all very nice, it wasn’t the reality of their lives. Hence phase three: Fit Got Real, which aims to inspire women who exercise the least, those in routine or low-income jobs, and black and south Asian women. The message this time is every little counts, no expensive Lycra required.
Price sees images like those in the Fit Got Real film as vital. “In a world of Instagram, to see sweaty and scruffy is incredibly powerful.”
But it is not just normal women doing sport who miss out on representation. There is a sore dearth of images of women on the sports pages of newspapers too.
Last year Totally Runable – an organisation that works in schools with girls and female sports staff – conducted an experiment. Between July 2017 and June 2018, they looked at nine national papers one day a month and took note of what photographs were used. In total they found 3,107 pictures of people doing sport. Of those, five were of men and women together, 3,011 were of men – and just 91 were of women: 2.9% of the total.
On the worst day of their survey, during September 2017, there were 365 pictures of men doing sport and one solitary photograph of a woman. No paper covered itself in glory over the year – the Guardian topped the poll with 9.8% of the pictures in its sports section featuring women, the Star, the Mirror and the Mail had less than 2%, while the Sun languished at the bottom with 0.8%.
And even when sportswomen were pictured, photographs often showed them in a dress picking up an award, or draped in a flag – not actually doing the thing they were famous for.
Natalie Jackson, director of Totally Runable, was not surprised by the results. “There is still a long way to go. We know from the work we do in schools that by age seven girls are 22% less likely than boys to call themselves very sporty. But is it any wonder? If they can’t see it, it is much harder for them to be it.” In response, she’s launched #SeeSportyBeSporty, calling for sport in the media to be more gender equal.
Newspaper desks say that women’s sports don’t always help themselves. Some organisations, like netball, are incredibly well run and good at pushing themselves forward. Others are not. To raise the numbers, though, there has to be effort from both sides of the desk.
Effort like that of Jennie Price, the girl picked last in PE, who on Thursday night won the lifetime achievement award at the sportswomen of the year awards. This girl can, all right.