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Run like nobody’s watching: how fear of judgement keeps women from being more active 

 

Research has shown that the covert social forces of embarrassment and intimidation can be enough to stop women from enjoying the powerful benefits of regular physical activity.

 

Despite knowing the benefits of exercise, around half of all Australian adults don’t get out and get active with any regularity. And across all age groups, fewer females than males are getting the recommended 150–300 minutes of physical activity each week.

With gains including physical fitness, weight management and better sleep, why should it be that so many women opt out of regular exercise?

In 2015, VicHealth commissioned research to better understand what motivates Victorians to be active – and what holds them back.

It emerged that significant moments of change, associated with certain life stages, often made people reconsider their physical activity. A change in routine could make exercise more difficult, or it could be harnessed as a trigger for women and girls to change their behaviour and become more active. For girls at high school, a shift to a new school or even the start of a new term could prompt a change. For adult women without children, the trigger could be around moving out of home, finding a job or starting a new relationship. For mums it was the major life moments: pregnancy, the birth of a baby or children starting school. And for retired women the triggers could be associated with retirement, moving into a smaller home, poor health or bereavement.

The barriers were more consistent across the life stages: lack of time was identified as a major obstacle by all but the retirees, and cost was cited by at least half the respondents in each of the age categories. And there was one other consistent barrier: embarrassment. The research showed that, regardless of age or life stage, and for a variety of different reasons, many women feel embarrassed, intimidated or unskilled when exercising in public, at gyms or at sporting clubs.

 

Fear of judgement

Among young women aged 18–24 years, almost half (49 per cent) reported feeling embarrassed about exercising in public. Concerns about exposing their bodies to the scrutiny of their peers were a significant factor.

Infographic: Nearly half of women aged 25 and over who are inactive or only somewhat active find sporting clubs intimidating

“Body image is a big issue,” says Rochelle Eime, Associate Professor at Victoria University’s Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living. “We are in a society where if you look at any women’s magazine the focus is on being pretty and thin. If girls and young women are not feeling good about what they look like, they’re not going to get involved in sport or physical activity.”

The research found two in five women aged 25 years and over, and more than half (53 per cent) of mothers over 25 years, felt embarrassed exercising in public. Even more (71 per cent) women were intimidated by gyms and fitness centres.

Eime believes this is partly due to women’s sense of skill and comfort. “You need a degree of competency to feel confident participating in physical activity,” she says. “A lot of girls and women don’t feel confident that they have the skills to play sport [or use gym equipment] so they feel intimidated and embarrassed.”

For many women, sporting clubs were particularly intimidating. This was the case for young women aged 18–24 years (59 per cent), especially for those who are not currently active. For nearly half the women aged 25 and over who are inactive or only somewhat active, sporting clubs were intimidating. This is significantly higher than the proportion of young men who find sporting clubs intimidating (35 per cent).

Gender expectations

Men’s traditional dominance in sport is believed to partly contribute to the gender imbalance in participation rates.

“Culturally, sport can be a tough place for a woman,” says Kirsty Forsdike, a La Trobe University PhD candidate whose thesis examines women in sport, mental health and social capital. Forsdike says female sport participants can face challenges such as trivialisation, discrimination and prejudice, which put pressure on them to “perform femininities” – in other words, to behave in ways that meet social expectations around what it is to be a woman. For sportswomen, those expectations often play out in media commentary that emphasises the way their bodies look rather than how they perform, and in discussion of their heterosexual relationships and their roles as mothers, wives and girlfriends.

Forsdike points to research in France showing that, while the majority of female rugby players didn’t feel the need to meet social norms of femininity, others were aware of making deliberate choices, such as wearing obviously feminine clothes, in order to free themselves from the perceived masculinity of rugby.

The subordinate role of women in sport is underpinned by a number of practices. Women’s sport typically receives less funding than men’s, prize money is smaller, certain clubs restrict membership, and media coverage of women’s sport is distinctly lacking when compared with men’s.

“The media can be seen countering threats to the norm of femininity by emphasising women’s value as being firmly entrenched in their beauty and submissiveness,” says Forsdike. She points to the example of Disney partnering with the England women’s football team in an attempt to increase girls’ participation by using the hashtag #DreamBigPrincess. “Using the aspiration of being a ‘princess’ is more likely prohibitive than motivational,” she says. “If we continue to ask girls to be sport ‘princesses’, we inhibit their potential to be whatever they want to be.”

 

Finding solutions

Women’s involvement in sport and physical activity also varies depending on their culture, socio-economic status and circumstances.

If women are going to participate in sport it needs to fit in with what they need in terms of availability, feeling confident they have the suitable skills and comfortable with the environment in which they participate.

An article in the journal Sport Management Review reported that the women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds surveyed perceived their access to sport as equal to men, but felt they didn’t have the same opportunity to participate. For example, respondents noted feeling inhibited by cultural expectations in their own families around how women should prioritise their time. Some also perceived a degree of exclusivity among their local sporting teams, saying they tended not to reflect the cultural diversity of the area.

This analysis is important to take into account when understanding and addressing the barriers to female participation in physical activity, says Rayoni Nelson, VicHealth’s Physical Activity, Sport and Healthy Eating Manager. It impacts on how activities are organised, how they are promoted and where they take place. “We understand that if women are going to participate in sport it needs to fit in with what they need in terms of availability, feeling confident they have the suitable skills and comfortable with the environment in which they participate.”

VicHealth’s research suggests that, depending on life stage, girls and women will participate in physical activity for different reasons. However, compared with men, women tend to place more importance on the social aspects of physical activity and are less motivated by performance outcomes.

In Victoria, four times as many females (44 per cent) choose to participate in non-organised or flexible physical activities, compared to the 9 per cent of women who take part in organised physical activities.

While some women enjoy competition, many others don’t. “Lots of women enjoy getting together with their mates and having a game without the rules, the uniforms and the focus on winning,” says Associate Professor Eime.

Infographic: 44% of Victorian women choose to participate in non-organised or flexible physical activities; 9% take part in organised physical activities

This desire has led to a phenomenon termed ‘social sport’. “Rather than competitive sport, we are looking at ‘social sport’ or ‘recreational sport’,” says Nelson. “This is where there is some structure to the activity, but social sport doesn’t have the membership, training and high costs that some clubs and sports have. Membership, training schedules and high fees can often be barriers to women exercising regularly.”

An example of a social sport is Rock Up Netball, where non-traditional netball activities are offered in a flexible and fun social setting. “While structured sports, such as those with a 20-week competitive season, will always be popular, we are definitely seeing a shift towards social sport that’s fitting in with busy lifestyles and competing demands,” says Nelson. “And that’s exciting for women and girls who want to become more active.”

 

A platform for success

Much research has been done into how participation in sport helps set up women for success at work and in their personal lives. A 2013 study by Ernst & Young found that, beyond physical health, the benefits of sport extended to “social, emotional and moral competencies, as well as resilience, a sense of teamwork and the ability to connect with a community”. On a material level, this was seen to translate into higher levels of education, higher salaries and a greater presence in traditionally male-dominated industries.

But the benefits are not contained to the individual. The United Nations has loudly touted the role sport can play in the delivery of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the goal around gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls with the declaration that “sport can advocate for gender equality, address constricting gender norms, and provide inclusive safe spaces.” The overview provided by the UN Office on Sport for Development and Peace points specifically to the potential for sport to boost self-esteem, confidence, knowledge and skills among women and girls, better equipping them to be “equal participants and leaders in their communities”.

Nelson agrees that participation in sport is less about match results and more about the development of personal and community strength.                                       

“Being active through sport is more than ‘being sporty’,” she says. “It’s about resilience, learning, connection and empowerment.”

The real faces of active women

 

So how do you override long-held attitudes about women’s participation in physical activity? How do you reset social expectations and support girls and women to get out and get active?

In search of an answer, Sport England looked at research that showed women were more likely to conquer the insecurities that kept them from exercising in public after they had been shown footage of people similar to themselves being physically active. In response they developed the groundbreaking This Girl Can campaign featuring real women of all ages, shapes, sizes, cultural backgrounds and levels of physical ability. Since launching in 2015, the campaign has inspired 2.8 million English women to become active.

Sport England and VicHealth are hoping to recreate that sort of impact with a local version of the campaign, scheduled to air in early 2018. Girls and women across the state are encouraged to share their stories, by uploading them to thisgirlcan.com.au.