Girls are half as likely to partake in physical exercise than boys, according to a study by the Youth Sport Trust. Recalling PE classes in school – the boys competing and thriving, while the girls pouted and made excuses – this comes as no surprise. Just as school can be a microcosm for society, the fears and preconceptions about sport which grow in our childhood can, unless challenged, be lifelong.
Although the government encourages an hour of exercise per day for school-age children, half of boys and two-thirds of girls still said they were reluctant to take part in physical exercise, meaning we should be considering how attitudes and confidence affect participation – particularly for women and girls. Research from government campaign This Girl Can found that a huge factor that made women reluctant to partake in sport was fear of judgement – of appearance, ability, or even of the very act of spending time by themselves.
The University of Edinburgh has a lot to be proud of when it comes to participation in sport. University can be an ideal place to try a new sport, or to get into exercise for the first time – indeed, students often do more sport than the rest of the general population. But even at university, a gender gap remains. 53% of female students take part in physical activity each week, compared to 63% of males. Females also preferred “individual, non-sporting activities”, such as going to the gym. Perhaps women and men are simply attracted to different types of exercise, but it may also be the case that women are still suffering fears of judgement, opting to run on the treadmill rather than outdoors; to remain hidden instead of joining a team.
Media produced by the This Girl Can campaign is going a long way in breaking these stereotypes. The key is to portray women of all shapes, backgrounds, ages and abilities enjoying a range of sports, putting beginners and elites in the same category. It uses stereotypes to its advantage: no one can laugh at you for being sweaty or wobbly if you proudly call yourself that first.
However, we also need to consider the flipside. Masculinity dominates our culture, and it is not just women who suffer. Men who feel they are not athletic or talented may be reluctant to take part as beginners. Issues of body-confidence and gendered expectations can affect us all. From my own experience in the university running club, the more casual ‘jogging’ section is almost exclusively made up of women. Despite being testament to the fantastic inclusivity of women with less experience exercising, this also suggests that men who lack experience or confidence may be struggling to find their place.
Of course, attending university is a privilege not everyone can achieve or afford. More must be done earlier in schools to promote positive attitudes towards exercise, for lifelong physical and mental health. Specific measures to encourage girls including a greater choice of female-oriented sports and less bulky kits have both been effective in improving attitudes and participation.
In the end, individuals must try to learn to feel confident enough in themselves enough to exercise unashamedly, and to encourage others to do the same. Measures are being taken by universities to promote confidence and participation, and progress, however slow, is being made.
Join Feminist society and running club’s 5k run in the Meadows on 26 th Nov, and keep on the lookout for other fantastic events as part of This Girl Can Week.