Today’s post is slightly off topic from what I usually write about, but I’ve given this quite a lot of thought over the last week or so and wanted to share and discuss it with you knowledgeable folks on the Interwebs. Many of you have probably already watched the latest Youtube video to go viral: the This Girl Can campaign launched by Sport England. If you haven’t, here it is in all its glory:
The good folks over at Sports England have studied what keeps women from exercising and found that a lot of them don’t exercise for fear of being judged for their looks while they do sports. This isn’t surprising, since sports brands and fitness clubs only ever seem to put pictures of perfectly toned stick insects on their advertisements. And from fashion mags and ads we already know that our bodies are far from perfect. So naturally, lots of women don’t exercise because they’re intimidated. Will they be made fun of? Will the guys at the gym find them ugly? Will the other super-fit almost-models with whom gyms, pools, and sports centres are apparently populated judge them? So Sports England went and made this awesome video to show “normal” women doing their favourite sports: swimming, dancing, cycling, etc.
I LOVE THIS CAMPAIGN. I felt hugely inspired by these fabulous ladies doing their thing and having the time of their lives. I myself am a woman with many “imperfections” and I’ve felt super self-conscious when doing exercise because of them. In fact, I felt so inspired that I even took a silly selfie of my post swimming-pool racoon face and posted it under the #thisgirlcan hashtag. Here it is, just for kicks:
But of course, as these things go, whenever a campaign to empower women is launched, the critics from the feminist camp itself aren’t far away. The Guardian published a piece by Jessica Francombe-Webb and Simone Fullagar entitled “The This Girl Can campaign is all about sex, not sport”. Essentially, its points are: (1) Where are the women? If this campaign is targeted at all women, why does it perpetuate the myth of “youthfulness” and belittle women by calling them “girls”? (2) By accompanying the campaign with lines such as “Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox”, women’s bodies are once again sexualised and objectified. It ends thus:
It’s disappointing that a campaign to get women more physically active doesn’t focus on how exercise strengthens friendship, reduces the stress of work and care and gives us physical and emotional strength. And we suppose it would be far too much to ask to see a campaign that shows exercise as an opportunity to find an active space outside the cult of body worship and display.
First of all, I want to emphasise that I find these thoughts important. We need to have a discussion about them.
I still disagree with the article. I’m not the only one, either. Erika Nicole Kendall of This Black Girl’s Weight Loss published a very interesting critique of The Guardian’s piece, and I recommend it. She argues that the term “girl” is used in a colloquial way by the campaign, not to exclude elderly women. And she also argues that the language used precisely plays on stupid stereotypes such as women sweating “like pigs” being un-sexy or “to throw like a girl” meaning to throw badly. Indeed, I would argue that a more “thoughtful” campaign like the one The Guardian’s critics would like to see wouldn’t have gone viral the way This Girl Can did. And if it gets even one more woman to exercise who didn’t do sports because of body image issues before, then this campaign has already done a tremendous job.
I’m aware the campaign isn’t perfect. Personally, I’m quite bothered by how snuggly they are with certain sports apparel producers, especially since these folks are to a great degree responsible for perpetuating the idea that you need a “perfect” body to exercise through their very own ads. Links to sports apparel brands are only a few clicks away once you start digging into the This Girl Can resources: if you scroll down the “swimming” page, you will find a link to… (wait for it)… a Speedo campaign that’s basically an undercover ad for their “body-shaping” swimwear
“to help your body appear in perfect proportion, creating optical illusions that enhance and shape the body: slimming, lengthening, balancing or creating curves, while distracting from the bits you’re not so keen on.”
I kid you not. Major “WTF” moment right there.
However, I want to discuss something else about the criticism levied against this campaign and many other initiatives that’s been driving me up the wall. As I’ve previously mentioned, whenever a book/campaign/whatever intended to help empowering women comes out, it’s instantly criticised by some feminists for everything it doesn’t do. For example, as I discussed in my post back then, Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In received plenty of criticism for ignoring the hardships of women not in up-scale managerial positions, as well as for taking pressure of institutional and societal reform by calling women to “lean in” and overcome barriers rather than calling to remove such barriers, etc. All of these are important points, I admit.
BUT. Why the hell do we feminists expect every women’s empowerment campaign to address ALL THE ISSUES? This is simply impossible. No single campaign, especially if it wants to move out of the obscure corner of high-brow feminism in which only very few feminists actually feel comfortable, can address every single problem there is with gender inequality. Or even “only” the problems with objectification, sexualisation, and body image issues. Campaigns like This Girl Can are designed to address A LOT OF WOMEN, including many who have never thought about any of these questions and “just” don’t feel comfortable while exercising because they don’t “look right”.
I’ve found a term for this demand for empowerment campaigns to address the entire universe of all that is wrong with the feminist world. Unfortunately, it only works in German. So bear with me for a moment. My wonderful mother tongue has a great term for wanting something that solves all the problems you’ve ever had, are currently having, and will ever have. You’re looking for an “eierlegende Wollmilchsau”, a pig that lays eggs, gives milk, and grows wool.
Now that would be a handy beast to have, right? Just as handy as it is fictional, of course. What people, more often than not, seem to expect of empowerment initiatives is a swiss army knife-type of solution.
It sometimes seems as if everyone else gets to do single-issue campaigns, except the good people seeking to empower women. They target young women (or “girls”), they’re criticised for not thinking of the elderly. They target professional women at the management level, they’re criticised for not considering working-class women. They use colloquial language, they’re chided for perpetuating stereotypes. It seems that women, and especially women’s empowerment campaigns (books, articles, speeches, whatever), really can never have (or do) it all, especially when it comes to living up to expectations.
I think in many cases it’s because the campaigns and the campaigners themselves overreach in their language and portray themselves as the saviours we’ve all been waiting for to relieve us of gender inequality.
But more importantly, I think it’s because we still don’t have enough of those campaigns. They’re so far and few between that whenever one does come out, we expect the world of it. Encouraging all kinds, shapes, sizes, and colours of women to work out should be normal, not a one-off thing that goes viral on Youtube. Encouraging women to be just as (professionally and personally) successful as they want to be shouldn’t fall only to the Sheryl Sandbergs of this world, it’s a responsibility to be assumed by bosses, politicians, rule-makers and society as a whole to create an environment in which women (and other genders!) can live the lives they want, and to remove any barriers that hinder this development.
In the meantime, we should cut these campaigns and initiatives some slack. Baby steps are where it’s at, people! These initiatives are each working on their part of the puzzle. No initiative can do it all. There are no egg-laying wool-milk pigs (who could even handle the cuteness overload?!). We need all different sorts of animals to provide eggs, wool, milk, and ham. And that’s a good thing. Because variety and diversity are good things, right?