This Girl Can – 18 months on

athleta power of she advert

If you haven’t heard about the Sport England This Girl Can advertising campaign, where have you been? It has been 18 months since the campaign was launched. In that time, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about issues facing sporty women.

This girl can website
The ‘This girl can’ website

The main criticism of the This Girl Can campaign that I’ve heard is that although the women in the video are from a range of ethnic groups and are different shapes and sizes, none of them is over 33. (I believe the main women are aged 29-33). As girls tend to participate less in sport after the age of 14, a few teenagers should have been included and also some women up to 70, 80 or beyond.

The campaign was discussed widely in the British media:

The one year on report stated that over 2.8 million women had been encouraged to take up sport as a result of the campaign, which is fantastic news. But as Jennie Price (Sport England’s Chief Executive) says “…the job is far from done. With a gender gap of 1.73 million fewer women playing sport compared to men, we need to keep getting the message out there that women come in all shapes and sizes and levels of ability, and they should all feel able to exercise and play sport.”

Hopefully, there will be further updates to the campaign and barriers to women’s participation will continue to come down.

Is enough being done to get women into triathlon and to give them equal opportunities?

In early 2015 the 50 women to Kona (TriEqual) initiative was launched, with the aim of there being an equal number of slots for pro women and pro men at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Currently, there are 50 slots for pro men and 35 slots for pro women. WTC argued against the petition saying it reflected the smaller number of women competing in Ironman events. However, stats show that women have a much harder battle to win a championship place:

50 Women to Kona data

In response to the 50 Women to Kona movement, WTC launched its ‘Women for Tri’ initiative. One of the first people to speak out against it was coach Brett Sutton: The Women for Tri initiative. One of the key points he brings up is that the original 12 women on the board were all American, but the main problems are in Europe and elsewhere, so a very narrow perspective is being looked at.

Another balanced article I read explained how WTC had fought back against accusations of ‘pink washing’. I also read Sarah Gross’s article, Triathlon: a sport of gender equality?, wherein she states that “We are one of, if not THE most gender-inclusive sports on the planet, we have a rich history of gender inclusivity”. However, despite being more inclusive than many other sports, there is still some way to go.

Although Women for Tri sounded like a positive initiative (and its Facebook group is a welcoming and inclusive place for women to discuss gender-specific tri issues), it didn’t take long before the only pro athlete on the board, Hillary Biscay, resigned as she didn’t feel the group had any real clout:

At grassroots level, it does seem that triathlon is doing reasonably well, but for the elites, there are still gender inequalities.

Representation of women in sport

The images and messages that the media gives about women in sport are a huge influence on young women and their decisions about whether to participate in sport. Some of it, such as the abuse that sportswomen face on social media, can be difficult to control. Surely it’s not too much to ask that media professionals treat women with dignity and respect?

The 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition’s cover image caused a lot of controversy for oversexualising its cover model.


Things improved slightly this year, as one of the three alternative Sports Illustrated covers featured Ashley Graham, a so-called ‘plus-size’ model.

Ashley Graham

However, it wasn’t long before Chery Tiegs (a former Sports Illustrated cover model) hit out at the inclusion of Ashley Graham for promoting an unhealthy ideal. Whilst I do have concerns about people who are at either end of the weight spectrum (anorexically thin or obese) being used as role models, I see nothing wrong with Ashley Graham’s figure. She does not look like someone with weight problems.

I thought it was heartening to hear that Athleta were launching an ad campaign featuring real women playing sports. One advert that caught my eye was the Sayulita Surf Sisters advert:

athleta advert

To me it seemed like a great campaign – real women being shown taking part in the sport they love. I was shocked to find that in the allegedly supportive Women for Tri Facebook group women were arguing about the unhealthy role models they were being presented with, with the woman on the right of the advert being singled out as being overweight.

Finally, I think it’s important to mention the ‘Like a Girl’ ad that aired during the 2015 Superbowl:

To me (and many others) it was amazing that an advert designed to empower women was described as oppressing men by its opponents. Fortunately, there were lots of great comebacks to the negativity on social media.

“Women’s issues”

Last year, menstruation and its effects on women’s sporting performance hit the news:

This is an issue that is regularly discussed in women-only online forums, so it was great that it was finally being talked about on mainstream media. It was even discussed by Ben Greenfield on his podcast.

Size and sport

There has also been a lot of discussion about what counts as an athletic figure. Many female sports stars, including Venus and Serena Williams, have been criticised for their ‘masculine’ physiques. But no-one could question their sporting ability. So, do we place undue emphasis on people’s looks over their sport’s requirements? After all, if Amanda Bingson lost weight she would probably not do as well at hammer throwing:

Amanda Bingson

Marion Bartoli was criticised for her looks following her success at Wimbledon, so she has lost weight (3 stone/ 42lbs/ 19kg), but now admits: “With my current weight, I could never hit the ball with the left and right of my two hands.” She also had to recently withdraw from a Wimbledon invitational because of fears about her health and her ‘gaunt’ physique.

Marion Bartoli
Marion Bartoli

So, is it possible to be ‘overweight’ and fit? These articles present some interesting viewpoints:

I’m part of a Facebook group for Athena triathletes (women who weight 165lbs or more, or those who used to be that size). As well as being a supportive community, there are some amazing triathletes who regularly debate whether they want to compete as an Athena or in their Age Group, with both being tough categories. I know plenty of people who are slim, but extremely unfit, so I’d prefer to be slightly overweight, but fit and healthy.

I’ve a lot of thoughts about the place of women in sport and the issues we face, but to write about them all in one post would take me too long. I’m in the process of writing something about my thoughts on women-only races but would love to hear your thoughts about the issues women face.

3 Responses

  1. I think that as a girl being teased about my fat legs in my PE kit (from the age of 5) and onwards until my mid teens, having to wear those very short skirts even if you were having your period (I started mine age 11) was all very humiliating. No wonder I hated games/ sport. But it was all from other girls, not opressed by boys or men?

    • Yes, I remember the horrible kit we had to wear for PE. Perhaps if schools relaxed the rules and let people wear what they feel comfortable in (as long as it was appropriate for sport) then that might help.

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