#ThisGirlCan – Why Sport England’s new campaign is spot on



Embracing the blood, sweat, tears and toil is helping transform attitudes to women’s sport. Middlesex Women’s cricket captain Izzy Westbury explains why a new campaign is hitting back at the Pride and Prejudice generation….

“How can you be so silly,” cried her mother, “as to think of such a thing, in all this dirt! You will not be fit to be seen when you get there.”

It’s England in the early 19th century. The carriage isn’t available and there are no horses to be had, so Elizabeth Bennet, determined and thoughtful, resolves to walk through the wet fields to visit her ill sister.

Fast forward two centuries later and this scene from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice could easily be replayed today, albeit without the horse and carriage.

In an age where the finished, final, airbrushed and photo-shopped image is the one on which women are judged in society, Sport England’s new ad campaign ‘#ThisGirlCan’ – which premiered on TV on Monday – is one helluva breath of fresh air.

“You were queen bee if you could skive PE and get your nails done while you were at it.”

“Horses sweat, gentlemen perspire and ladies feel the heat,” is how the old saying goes. Well guess what, world, things have moved on since Jane Austen’s time and ‘This Girl Can’ is here to show us just that.

I’ve found it difficult to relate to many of the past ad campaigns encouraging women to get active. You know the ones – filled with prim and proper ladies dressed more for a Friday night out than a gym session, lathered in make-up still perfectly in place and not a drop of sweat in sight.

Is this realistic? No. Did I care how I looked? No. But society seemed to. Luckily for me, I lived in blissful ignorance. At school the choice was simple; you were either a girl dressing up as a fairy princess or a boy playing football in the school playground.

Did I want to be a boy? I don’t think it particularly crossed my mind. But did I want to kick a ball around every minute of the day and be the next Alan Shearer? Hell yes. And the only way that I, aged seven, could see of doing this was to be a boy. And so I conformed.

Cricket, oddly, arrived much later on the scene and ironically was a direct result of not having the opportunities as a girl to play football. Football, to my mother’s bewilderment, was my first love. As a south of the Watford gap, middle-class, well-to-do young girl with an accent straight out of Buckingham Palace, naturally Newcastle United was my Mecca and Alan Shearer my god. It’s a long story…

I rose through the ranks at my local football club as the only girl in the team and thrived on it. The boys accepted me as one of their own and there seemed no reason that I could not aspire to play the game professionally like the rest of the boys.

On reaching the age of 13, however, the dream ended. Girls were no longer allowed to play competitive football in mixed teams. There was no active girls team in the area and the only other option was playing in a team full of strangers 10 years my senior.

The solution? Cricket. With no rule against girls playing with the boys I quickly adopted this new sport as my way of beating the boys at their own game. That was what I wanted to do and the only change was through the medium with which I was going to do it.

“The world has moved on but attitudes are yet to catch up.”

I was an anomaly. That much is easy to see. For the boys, you were kingpin if you were the star striker in the football team. For the girls, you were queen bee if you could skive PE and get your nails done while you were at it.

In 2012, an American study claimed that 40 per cent of women avoid exercise because they don’t want to mess up their hair. Mud, sweat and tears just wasn’t ‘girly’. In a world where rising obesity levels are crippling our health service, we just can’t afford to have these barriers. ‘This Girl Can’ is trying to change a perception, and society knows all too well that perceptions count.

“I jiggle therefore I am.”, “Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox.”, “Damn right I look hot.” – these are among the slogans Sport England have chosen to accompany shots of regular women pushing themselves to the limit in the gym, in the pool or on the pitch.

This is the reality of sport, of hard work and of freedom. Train like Medusa to look like Helen of Troy, because you’re sure as hell not going to get there if you reverse those roles.

Society judges people against the standards it sets. Those standards find their roots in a world where women couldn’t vote, where they couldn’t leave the house without another man and the idea of walking a couple of miles across a field could put paid to your marriage ambitions.

The world has moved on but attitudes are yet to catch up. ‘This Girl Can’ is revolutionary and inspiring precisely because it shows real women, experiencing the realities of exercise in real life.

And you don’t have to be a boy to do that.

Follow West London Sport on Twitter
Find us on Facebook