This Girl Can is empowering women across England and in Victoria to push past their fear of judgement to get more physically active. And the benefits don’t end with better health.
In 2015, with a mandate to ensure that everyone in the England feels equally able to take part in sport and other types of physical activity, Sport England launched This Girl Can. The multi-platform campaign showed women sweating, gasping, laughing and collapsing as they danced, swam, kicked, jogged and boxed their way to ‘freaky’, ‘foxy’ good health. By its first birthday, the campaign had racked up 36 million views, 660,000 retweets and had inspired 2.8 million women in England to be more active.
At around the same time, with a vision of social change and collaboration with like-minded partners across the globe, VicHealth was working with Sport England to lay the foundations of what would become a significant partnership.
‘Collaboration is absolutely fundamental to VicHealth. It’s in our DNA,’ says CEO Jerril Rechter. ‘We are built upon legislation that requires us to be collaborative but, more than that, we actually can’t do our work without partners and collaborators.
‘Addressing issues like low levels of physical activity, like violence against women – that’s not something that VicHealth can do on its own. Tobacco control, alcohol harm, mental wellbeing: these are all really significant issues and complex problems and so we need, and want, and do work in partnership with multiple organisations, across multiple sectors.’
Overcoming the fear of judgement
As This Girl Can gathered momentum in England, Rechter started thinking about how the campaign might be translated to support local communities in Victoria.
The conviction that change initiatives must be grounded in research-based insights is held in common by both Sport England and VicHealth.
Some of the issues, like time and cost, were familiar, but the strongest theme was a fear of judgement.
VicHealth commissioned its own research, published in 2017, to identify barriers to physical activity participation at key life stages for both men and women. The research revealed some differences in the experiences of English and Australian women, but the underlying insight was profound. On both sides of the world, the fear of judgement was the number one factor preventing women from getting out and getting active.
That fear of judgement manifests when women worry about how they look in exercise gear or what people will think of them once they get hot and sweaty. It’s there in a lack of confidence about skills and experience so significant, sometimes, that women will hold back from joining a team sport for fear of letting people down. And it’s evident when women feel judged for prioritising exercise over other responsibilities including work, study and family time.
In response, This Girl Can sought to destabilise the perceived norms – against which the average woman could never possibly measure up – by presenting a more realistic vision of modern women engaged in all sorts of physical pursuits.
‘We decided that we were going to create a completely different imagery and a completely different way of talking and thinking about how women exercise and play sport,’ Price told an audience at University College London (UCL).
Australian role models
In England it was Lydia, tiny at 147cm in height, who loved roller derby; and 67-year-old Catherine who proved her mettle at every bootcamp session she attended; and Grace who, despite her slow speed on a flower-decked bicycle, was proud of the fact that she was ‘lapping everyone on the couch’.
In Australia, the faces of the campaign (25 of them in all) include Deb who now goes walking every day before breakfast, not to lose weight, but to give her the energy she needs to get through a busy day; and Jaime who has reconnected with soccer despite her ‘mum belly’; and 52-year-old surfer Lisa who says ‘a bikini body is just a body you put in a bikini’.
Sport England’s post-campaign focus groups confirmed that This Girl Can was doing something different.
‘The thing that really struck me was the number of women who said, “I thought I was the only one who felt like this. I thought I was the only one that worried. I thought I was the only one that had that judgement dialogue in my head the whole time”,’ Price said at UCL. ‘And that sparked all sorts of conversations and a lot of emotions.’
What began as an initiative to get more women more active had tapped into something more, with the result that a more authentic, more empowering narrative around women, capability and entitlement was taking hold, accosting social norms and trumping the insidious ‘fitspiration’ movement.
Challenging wider assumptions
In Australia, VicHealth’s This Girl Can - Victoria campaign was seen as one part of a wide-ranging effort to challenge the assumptions that impede gender equality that was already well under way.
In Australia, the context for the launch of This Girl Can - Victoria was slightly different. For more than 15 years, VicHealth has been involved in raising awareness around the factors that contribute to violence against women, including the fundamental role played by gender inequality. That work, bolstered by the recommendations of Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence, positioned This Girl Can - Victoria as part of a larger body of work to enable everyone to realise their full potential for health and wellbeing, regardless of gender.
We saw this campaign not only as a physical activity campaign, but as a campaign that could work towards empowering women and addressing gender equality.
‘We saw this campaign not only as a physical activity campaign, but as a campaign that could work towards empowering women and addressing gender equality,’ says Rechter.
Sport England’s Price picked up on the sentiment on a visit to Australia in mid-2016. On her return to the UK she talked about her experience at the Advertising Association’s Parliamentary Reception, saying ‘When we played the This Girl Can video for campaigners on domestic violence, they said “this has nothing to do with sport or physical activity and everything to do with empowerment of women and women being treated properly and being able to stand up as themselves and for what they want”. To be honest, although the 2.8 million women we got exercising is my job, the thing I was most pleased about was that we had managed to make a real statement about empowering women.’
Working with sporting organisations
Locally, This Girl Can - Victoria also benefitted from work done by VicHealth to help Victorian sporting organisations be more aware of what it takes to make venues, clubs and competitions more welcoming and inclusive for women.
‘Over the past four to five years, we did a lot of groundwork,’ says Rechter. ‘It meant that when the call-to-action came from This Girl Can - Victoria – get up and get out – women were stepping into a local gym or a YMCA Centre or some other organisation or place that was already thinking about how they could accommodate women and minimise those fears of judgement.’
Years of working collaboratively with the sporting codes on research and pilot programs focused on increasing women’s participation have generated a wealth of insights. On an environmental level, it can be small considerations such as making sure there is somewhere close to the pool for a woman to leave her towel while she goes for a swim. ‘If it is a five-metre or eight-metre walk, women are not going to go swimming because they don’t want to reveal their bodies,’ explains Rechter.
On an organisational level, it’s about emphasising the social aspects of participation ahead of competition, and choosing the coaches, training schedules and even dress codes to match. ‘It needs to be much more social and much more flexible,’ Rechter says. ‘It is fundamentally changing the way that sporting activities are structured for those populations and that has been a huge cultural shift for many of the sporting organisations we work with.’
Building on success
In England, Sport England has followed up the successful 2015 campaign with a new version of This Girl Can, launched in 2017, that targets women at both the younger and older ends of the age spectrum. In Victoria, This Girl Can - Victoria is midway through its first three-month on-air campaign; the impacts will be known later this year.
‘We’re really proud of our relationship with VicHealth,’ says Price, ‘and especially proud that this is our first international partnership for the This Girl Can campaign.’