Changing the attitude of women towards sport

Changing the attitude of women towards sport

2012 has come and gone, leaving only the high hopes of a sea-change in attitudes towards sport and fitness among the British people. There is a particular push towards getting women to be more active – but is this what women want?

One of the major selling points in securing funding for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics was the promise of the ‘Olympic Legacy’. As well as the new sports facilities, this also included a planned change in attitudes. The hope was to encourage more of the UK population to become active and stay active. Women were and are particularly targeted by this plan, as their participation in sport is always lower than that of men.

Culture, media and sport secretary Maria Miller has said of the Olympic legacy that “It is vital that we build on that success, and get more girls and women playing sport”. As part of this plan, a recent government initiative has allocated £1.8 million from the lottery to find out what will attract more women into sport. The money is being spent by Sports England in a pilot scheme in the Manchester area of Bury. The initiative is offering ‘female-friendly’ sports which are deemed to include activities such as Zumba, rounders and Pilates. Outdoor fitness sessions are also available.

Can this laudable idea meet with any success? Sadly there are many obstacles. Women who already take part in sport often find this kind of thing very patronising. Women who don’t take part may be stopped by practical reasons - but there are also psychological issues to overcome. Beyond lack of time due to the ‘second shift’, what stops women getting into sport and fitness?

·         Self-esteem: the scars of being ‘rubbish at PE’ at school never heal for many people. Combine this with worries about not being able to keep up with a fitness class or looking fat in a swimsuit, and there are many psychological obstacles for women wanting to get fit.

·         Media pressure: the amount of coverage received by female sports stars appears to be directly proportional to how they conform to perceived standards of beauty. Female athletes compete in skimpy outfits, while male athletes seem mysteriously immune to being hampered by wearing slightly more clothes to do the same sport. All this conspires to make women feel that what matters is how they look, not what they do.

·         Fitness myths: the old stories still go round and still damage the image of fitness. Women still worry that exercising will make them bulky, or that it is not acceptable to be seen sweating. Some also worry that they need to be fitter or slimmer before they can start exercising. This is a shame, because generally the people that appear on posters for gyms or sports clubs do not necessarily resemble the actual membership.

·         Lack of role models: women’s sports receive far less media coverage than those for men. There is an active and successful UK women’s football organisation with success at international level. A similar operation runs for cricket. However beyond the peaks of Wimbledon and the Olympics, women in sport receive almost no coverage in the mainstream media.

One of the roots of the problem still lies in PE lessons at school. A recent survey of teachers shows that participation in sport is still dropping, partly due to cuts made in the funding for school sports in 2011. Many parents also still find that less athletic children are having the same experiences as those who were pupils thirty years ago. All too many school exercise sessions still exclude those no good at the traditional sports, or fail to encourage the children who most need to exercise.

As girls enter the teenage years, sport participation drops even further. Girls are pressured by both peers and media to be obsessed with appearance, to spend time shopping, applying makeup and doing their hair and to be as skinny as possible. Many of them still believe that smoking will keep their weight down. Boys are also appearance-obsessed – but for them it is often channelled into working out at the gym or taking up a sport to improve their looks. As long as this does not lead them down the dark path of performance-enhancing drugs, the peer pressure for boys often drives them to be healthier.

Scandalously, even gold-medallist Jessica Ennis was described as ‘fat’ by a leading member of UK athletics. For the record, Ennis stands five feet five inches tall and her competing weight is about nine stone. This puts her well within the healthy weight range, as is obvious from photographs of her. Sadly the skeletal emaciation of fashion models is still pushed by the media as an acceptable standard of beauty. If even athletics ‘experts’ subscribe to this belief, it is no wonder that women can have extremely unrealistic expectations of how they should look.

Initiatives such as those from Sports England in Bury are an excellent start, but even after decades of gender equality there is still much to be done.  Sporting stars need to make it clear that appearance is unimportant, that fitness and health matter and that looking after your body can be fun.

We need to counteract the toxic messages that are being given to girls and women about their bodies, and to find a way to make being healthy ‘cool’ and attractive again.


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