20 February 2015

This Girl Can...give us a twirl.

Sport England recently unveiled This Girl Can; its latest campaign to boost female participation in sport and physical activity. But not before it had done its homework. During the survey year October 2013 to October 2014 Sport England discovered that 41.8% of males aged 14 or over played sport at least once a week. The equivalent figure for females was just 31.9%.

They also found that 75% of women between ages 14 and 40 wanted to participate in more sport. Amongst the traditional barriers to achieving greater engagement, one stood out in particular: fear of judgement. Understandably, in a society which is still asking 2015's top female sports stars (like Eugenie Bouchard)  to 'give us a twirl', women are acutely attuned to judgements made about the body.

Having the 'right' body carries a great deal of what Pierre Bourdieu called cultural capital. Your body says a lot about your status in any given social sphere (or 'field' as Bourdieu would have it). The leanness, shapeliness or muscularity of your body, along with your clothes and your demeanour, may determine whether you 'fit in' or are accepted at the gym, the pool or the club house. This Girl Can seeks to redress (should that be re-dress?) the balance for women through redistribution of cultural capital.

While the noble intention of the campaign is to invoke a realignment of body image norms in the mainstream media, there are a handful of concerns which I would love to find ultimately unfounded.

A number of problems with the campaign have already been addressed by other writers. These include issues of representation (where are the Asian women?), objectification & sexualisation (see this excellent piece on The Conversation), and stereotyping (women only engage in cardiovascular exercise).

All these are valid, but my greater concern with This Girl Can is that the campaign, by its very nature, suggests the problem of female under-representation in sport and physical activity lies with individual women. That is, if a woman feels uneasy about going for a run because she is concerned what people may think, then ultimately that's her problem and she needs to get over it. Never mind the countless structural/societal reasons for her concerns over body image, a motivational video, and a little bit of Missy Elliott, are all that is needed for real and lasting lifestyle change.

Granted, you've got to start somewhere: I don't want to be a complete spoilsport. No doubt Sport England have grown tired of funding quality Sports provision for women over the past couple of decades only to see their efforts undermined by the relentless normalising of female inactivity in the media. In which case, carry on Sport England: let's hope it works. But is it likely that a funky video or two can change the way society looks at women to such an extent that it will have both a noticeable, and crucially, long-term impact on participation? A spike in YouTube video views is not seamlessly translated into a spike in sports participation.

This Girl Can is a great case study of the great Structure vs Agency debate within sociology. And since structure usually trumps agency (at least in the long run) I expect to see a short-lived peak in female participation, followed by a return to the status quo. I would also dearly love to be wrong.

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