A few years ago, I read a story about women who run on treadmills in sheds so no one can see them sweat. Or move. Or what they’re wearing.
It’s a grim image that has stuck with me and one that I’ve been thinking about lately as I explore how fear of judgement prevents women from exercising and what that means for my brand.
The shed story was based on research by Sport England that revealed 13 million women say they would like to participate more in sports and physical activity but the fear of judgement and not being “good enough” is stopping them.
That fear is an all-encompassing concern that can come from all angles: men, other women, friends and family. Women fear they’ll be judged on their appearance, on their ability, for taking time away from their duties as wife/mother/daughter, and for being selfish for taking time for themselves.
These fears are so powerful and so pervasive that they’ve been the inspiration behind my brand’s new campaign to get women moving. Not because they should, but because they want to, whatever that looks like to them, and whatever they look like.
Women don’t need to be told that exercise is good for them; they are well aware of its benefits. But research shows that women feel alone in their fear they’re not good enough, as opposed to viewing that belief as the deeply entrenched, universal truth that it is.
The gender gap cannot be ignored here. Studies show that, unlike women, most men believe they possess above-average athletic ability, while their sporting pursuits are often considered “hobbies” to be encouraged, differing from women, whose “me time” can be construed as indulgent.
It doesn’t help that in addition to the pervasive images of lithe, toned women in the media, those less-fit women choosing to exercise in their sheds, basements, or under the cover of darkness (yes, this happens), means that many of the women people do see running in the park or participating in spin classes are often the slim ones, underscoring the belief that only fit people exercise.
Overcoming these fears and challenges isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Sport England’s hugely successful “This Girl Can” campaign is proof that positive messaging and imagery delivered in a striking, yet accessible fashion can spur action. The campaign has been credited with prompting millions of inactive women to start exercising.
“What is interesting is that attitudes haven’t changed, that fear of judgement is still there, but what we are doing is helping women manage that fear and do it anyway,” says Tanya Joseph, who engineered the campaign during her time with Sport England.
“What is interesting is that attitudes haven’t changed, that fear of judgement is still there, but what we are doing is helping women manage that fear and do it anyway.”
I find this so enlightening, though perhaps I shouldn’t. Even though women still feel judged, they’re engaging in exercise because they see the activities featured — such as roller derby, bike riding, dancing and net ball — as possible, maybe even fun. They’re also responding to the authenticity of the ad campaign in which they see themselves reflected: “normal” women being active in very real ways. No soft filter, no perfect yoga pose, no models with rock-hard abs, but something different from what has been portrayed as the norm.
“You don’t need to make women feel bad about themselves to sell products or change behaviour,” says Joseph.
This didn’t happen by accident. The agency behind the campaign, FCB Inferno, created a manifesto to guide its creative process: Women come in all shapes and sizes and all levels of ability. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bit rubbish or an expert. The point is you’re a woman and you’re doing something.
Although this manifesto aligns perfectly with my brand and our Get Moving campaign — one that encourages women to move their mindset along with their bodies — it’s made me consider more deeply how my company is approaching this issue. While we’ve prided ourselves on using “real” women, not models, in our imagery, I’m not sure we’ve gone far enough. Like other insights I’m having along the way, this awareness is another important step in the evolution of my brand.
The idea that ads — indeed any imagery — can be aspirational as well as authentic is obviously not a new one, especially with the trend toward body positivity. However, the bulk of the health and fitness industry, along with the biggest sports brands, still uses images of women with bodies far from the norm. While I imagine this is meant to inspire, it too often has the opposite effect, one that is demotivating. It’s hard to get off the couch when all you see is how far you have to go.
I aspire to create a brand that truly understands what motivates women, builds community, and celebrates however women choose to get active, whether that’s playing with their kids, taking their dog for a walk or running a marathon.
Without normalizing women’s experience and showing what real life looks like for the majority of us, women who fear judgement won’t be inspired to pursue what they’re capable of — doing whatever it is that moves them.
If you’d like to connect with a community of amazing women, please ask to join our private Facebook group, BounceLab. It’s a place to be inspired, ask questions, and share stories and photos of what moves you.
You can also read this article on Medium.com.