Body Language – it’s time to change what we are saying about women in sport

Sportette has recently released its new online campaign, “Strong is the New Pretty”. The aim of the campaign is to showcase female athletes “with the theme that strength is beauty”, in order to provide “healthy, strong, fit” role models for young girls. The first (and so far only) role model is Matildas star Tameka Butt, and the website shows six images of Butt in various poses – most with a soccer ball. She is wearing just a crop top and shorts, so that her well defined abdominal muscles are evident. Although Sportette’s aim is to reframe the view of women in sport, through this campaign it nonetheless maintains the focus on the body and, indeed, what is ‘pretty’ (whether it’s strength or otherwise). The bigger issue, that we are still focusing on what women look like, rather than what they do, seems to have been lost.

Whilst Butt is a fantastic role model for young girls (and boys) with her prowess on the pitch, it is concerning that her physique should be something to look up to, rather than her skills. It is worth remembering that while Butt may present a ‘strong’ role model, this body is not achievable for many girls or women. Butt is an elite athlete, who spends hours training, exercising and eating well. Whilst her strength is impressive, it may be counter-productive to use it as something to aspire to. We know that many girls and women have stopped exercising because they are concerned with how they look. A recent UK study put the figure at half a million women who have given up swimming in the past decade “because of how they look in the pool.” The Active People Survey found that in just the last 12 months, 181,700 women had quit swimming (compared to 63,300 men). Although Strong is the New Pretty shifts focus to ‘strength’, the issue remains that young girls are still only seeing unattainable bodies being promoted.

(Another example of how choosing to define what is ‘beauty’ or ‘pretty’ can be problematic was Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, which included the slogan ‘real women have curves’. Whilst the campaign may have begun from very well meaning ideas, this narrow view of what a ‘real woman’ is – only those with curves – actually shut out many more women than it sought to include).

We know that even for elite athletes, body image is a problem. Olympian Rebecca Adlington has explained that, “I was an athlete, I wasn’t trying to be a model, but pretty much every single week on Twitter I get someone commenting on the way I look”. A recent report by BT Sport found that 80% of athletes “felt pressure to conform to a certain look and body type”. By focusing on the body (whether it is curvy, strong, tall, thin or otherwise) pressure is put on girls and women – and athletes – to look a certain way, when the focus should be on their sport.

In an effort to deal with this issue, Sport England came up with the very popular “This Girl Can” campaign. This focuses on “real women” engaging in sport – with images of women participating in various activities accompanied by a tag line such as “I jiggle therefore I am”; “I kick balls. Deal with it”; I swim because I love my body, not because I hate it”; and so on. The head of Sport England suggested that “one of the reasons the campaign has captured the popular imagination is that it features real women”. Certainly, this is a very big positive and, when Sport England were faced with research that showed body image was one of the main reasons women stopped exercising, facing the issue head on seems to be a fairly good place to start.

However, the campaign, which states it is “a celebration of active women… doing their thing no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their face gets” has not been without its critics. Simone Fullager and Jessica Francombe-Webb from the University of Bath have suggested that, “this campaign is not only still all about women’s flesh, but it tries to see that as radical or revolutionary”.  They also complain about some of the language – for example how “sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox” and being “hot and bothered” is overtly sexualised. The suggestion is that even if the This Girl Can debate moves the idea from feminine is sexy to sweaty is sexy, it’s still focusing on what is sexy. While there is certainly merit in this argument, the popularity of the campaign amongst women has been great and, it is not yet evident as to whether or not this correlates with an increase in rates of particpation.

Indeed, Sportette have as yet only released one role model as part of Strong is the New Pretty; it remains to be seen how varied the body types may be that they choose to promote. There may yet be a weightlifter or other non-traditional body type popping up on our screen. However what will remain is the fact that expectations around women’s bodies in sports remain. Rather than showing a picture of Butt in action on the field, or a weightlifter breaking a world record, we are likely to continue to see just women’s bodies, and not what their bodies can do. This is a shame, because the basic premise of Sportette’s campaign – to provide better role models for young girls – is something that is so critical. We just need to find a way to do it without focusing on the body.

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