By Kasey Symons
This Girl Can Week was originally slated to begin March 23. It should have been a week full of activities encouraging women to get out and about, join groups and connect to communities to try different kinds of physical activity.
But the week’s activities were formally cancelled as the fast-developing impacts of COVID-19 (the coronavirus) become more and more pronounced, forcing the world to maintain physical distance from one another and bringing sport and recreation activities to a halt.
It’s unfortunate for the campaign that this week’s activities are cancelled, but the message of This Girl Can is about more than one week of physical activity and is designed to permeate into the everyday lives of women who struggle to participate in any kind of physical activity.
This year’s campaign is centred around the toxicity of social media and the damaging effects of social media influencer and #FITSPO culture. A new VicHealth survey of over 1000 Victorian women found that around two-thirds of women (66%) aren’t motivated by #FITSPO images of women on Instagram but over three quarters of women find seeing women of all different body shapes getting active motivating.
Frighteningly, a third of women feel bad or inadequate about their own bodies and fitness when they see #FITSPO images on Instagram.
“What our research tells us is that women are not motivated to get active after seeing those images in their social media feed. And what’s worse, those images actually make them feel bad or inadequate in their own fitness. So that’s where This Girl Can comes into it really, with the antithesis of that kind of inspiration movement and showing real women real bodies in their huffing and puffing, glory.” VicHealth head of This Girl Can, Melanie Fineberg says.
This Girl Can is a six-year VicHealth campaign aiming to increase physical activity among Victorian women. It focuses on less active women, and supports gender equality by challenging traditional gender roles and stereotypes in sport and by celebrating women.
Fineberg is thrilled to see the campaign’s almost immediate impact. “The campaign kicked off in 2018. And since that time, we’ve seen a huge impact across the community. And we’ve got more than 400,000 women across Victoria, getting more active in direct response to the campaign. That’s one in five women across Victoria, doing more activity, trying something new or getting back into exercise after a break. So it’s been really amazing to see the momentum build.”
But there’s still work to do and Fineberg is passionate about the campaign’s focus on real women and the feeling you can get from being active rather than the numbers you see on the scales.
“[Some women feel they need] to have these unrealistic, perfect bodies before they can even go into a gym environment, before they can go out for a run around the local streets. And this isn’t the case. And we need to create the norm in society of all kinds of women from all walks of life, all abilities, backgrounds, ages, body shapes, sizes, getting out moving their bodies and actually enjoying that, so that other women feel empowered to do the same.”
To address the research and counteract the #FITSPO content that is producing damaging effects, Fineberg details how This Girl Can is using different imagery and ambassadors to inspire all different kinds of women. “[We feature] everyday women, and not elite athletes or Instagram influencers, or models or actors in the campaign. And that, I think is a really critical element of it.”
This Girl Can features many inspiring ambassadors with different stories and connections to sport.
Sue started playing Australian rules football when she was fifty-three. She’s loved footy all her life and has been around footy clubs through her son and husband’s involvement. But it wasn’t until 2018 when she actually thought about giving it a go herself because sometimes the love of a sport doesn’t always translate into a natural progression into playing it.
Sue remembers her first training and the feeling of fear and self-doubt many women feel before they put themselves out there to try something physical.
“I’m not super fit, you know. I’m overweight. I’m in my 50’s. And I was trying to talk myself out of it. And I didn’t want anybody else in the family to talk me out of it. So I didn’t tell anybody and I went off and then I sat in the car park, and I literally had this conversation in my head. You know, part of me is going, ‘you’re too fat. You’re too unfit, too old. You cannot do this.’ And then there was the other part of me, the part that really wanted to play football. And then a couple of other women walked over and I thought, ‘I’m just gonna do it.’ The anxiety was really kicking in, I think with a lot of women, that first step that you take can be really, really hard to do.”
But for Sue it was worth it and now other women in her community look to her as a wonderful example.
“People say to me that I’m such an inspiration. And I initially was like, but why? You know, I’m just doing something that I love. And people are like, ‘no, it’s so fantastic!’ And, you know, even before the This Girl Can campaign, some of my friends, they weren’t necessarily very active, but they would go and introduce something, and start walking or, you know, join the gym or do some fitness classes or something. So, I say the This Girl Can campaign is expanding on that and putting it out there that just because you’re in your fifties and you might be a bit overweight, a little bit unfit. There’s still heaps of things that you can do to keep yourself active.”
Rosy wanted to give golf a go after playing tennis for a while to experience a sport that incorporated a slower pace and some more social elements.
“I like the concept of golf, how you go for a walk with your friends and it’s not as strenuous as something like tennis. It seems just like a bit more of a relaxing sport. It’s still got that physical and mental aspect. But I like the fact that you can walk through such nice golf courses and you can play with anyone of any age or any ability, skill level, things like that.”
But when Rosy first decided to hit the course, she didn’t feel entirely welcome.
“The first time I played 18 holes, I was lucky enough to play at one of the nicer golf clubs in Victoria. I had some friends that I played with and they got me in but yeah, even just driving into the golf course, I just felt like I didn’t belong there because it was just too fancy for me. I felt as if I needed to know golf really well to play there and I felt like I needed to have all the right equipment and all the right stuff to play there. So I did feel pretty uncomfortable when I first drove in there and I got all the looks from people as well especially because I’m a bit younger than the normal age category to play golf.
“Everyone had their expensive golf clubs, had their fancy gear as well. And I just rocked up with golf clubs that I had borrowed from my friends that were probably 20 years old. And yeah, I just had like my leggings and my runners that I wear when I go for a walk, I didn’t feel like I fit in.”
These kinds of barriers are really common for women to overcome. They might seem small, the right clothes, equipment, thinking about your age and how you look compared to the others around you, but these small things have such a powerful effect on women to keep them out, to stop them from trying.
“At a golf course or a driving range, staff or other players might ask if I know how to get the balls or where the first tee is. It makes me feel as if I don’t know what I’m doing. The way they ask is demoralising. I feel like they assume that because I’m young that I don’t know what I’m doing,”
This held Rosy back to begin with, but now it’s inspired her to encourage other women of all ages to get involved in golf.
“Feeling discouraged and intimidated at golf courses held me back, so it took me a while to start playing properly. I want to encourage more women to play, no matter what age they are. It’s a really social sport with so many great physical and mental benefits. I want more women to give it a go and not let the male-dominated culture stop them.”
Rosy is passionate about the game of golf and hopes sharing her experiences as a This Girl Can ambassador can help other women overcome some of the anxiety they might have about starting a new sport.
Rosy says to “try not let those barriers get to you or that attitude that you might get from one member at a golf club. Try not let that get to you. And it’s probably best as well to go to the more casual golf clubs or driving ranges just to start with. They’re more relaxed and yeah, they let anyone and everyone playing you don’t need to be at a certain level. You don’t have to have a handicap or you don’t have to wear the right clothes as well. So I’d probably start there as well just to be in a more relaxed, comfortable environment just to try the sport.”
It’s great advice, and something to keep in mind for another time, as trying new sports and participating in physical activity is going to be a very different experience for a while with community sports and club closing for the foreseeable future. What This Girl Can is now focussed on is ensuring these stories are not lost, that when we can access sports in the way we’re used to, women feel empowered and comfortable and safe to do so.
And in this time of global crisis, the importance of physical and mental wellbeing doesn’t disappear. This Girl Can will be sharing information and content to help women work out at home and still participate in safe individual physical activity while also alleviating some of the anxiety that the situation is causing.
“Getting your body moving and being physically active really have huge benefits for both the mind and body and can actually help relieve some of that stress and some of that anxiety.” Melanie Fineberg says.
“Of course, we encourage everyone to follow the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, the ones that have advice around what to do to stay safe. And they’re talking about reducing close contact with other people and maintaining social distance. But there’s still plenty of ways you can get active.
“Following the hashtag #ThisGirlCan we’re going to be capturing some content from all of our ambassadors with some workout tips and tricks that you can follow for all abilities to get active during this time. Unless you have been told to self-isolate, you can still go out for a walk and there are lots of ways that people can get active at home, but thinking about doing that in a slightly different way.”
Going back to the This Girl Can campaign’s initial focus, the toxicity of social media and #FITSPO culture, Fineberg stresses that in the current climate with more and more people looking to online options, it is key to ensure you’re not consuming content that will add to your anxiety and damage your self-esteem.
“I think even more so it’s important to unfollow the influencers on social media and start following This Girl Can and more body positive, everyday women who are getting active.”