#thisgirlcan? I much prefer #thiswomandoes | Shelley Silas

I am a 57-year-old woman in excellent health. I love exercising, and my training gear: an assortment of brands and designs, making me feel great, encouraging me to work harder at staying fit.

At my comprehensive, I threw the javelin for Barnet. I wore Adidas Rom trainers, white with trademark blue stripes, until the leather cracked and holes appeared. In my 20s I went to dance classes and the gym. I didn’t exercise much for the next 20 years. I found love instead.

In my mid-50s I started running; this required new trainers, winter wear, summer wear, and I use every single item I own. But every advertising email or poster to do with sportswear features young women. I understand the reasoning; you want to look like that, buy this and you will. Much as I like to think I look like the models in the ads, I know I don’t. Why can’t younger and older woman sit side by side, as we do in real life? Exercise doesn’t stop when we go from girl to woman; the over-50s are constantly being told to exercise more and many of us already do, but we remain invisible to sports manufacturers – although we are more likely to be able to afford their products.

I have a similar concern with the #thisgirlcan campaign. Its target audience used to be 14-40; from January 2017 it was extended to 14-60, though the campaign says there is no age limit. There is a 69-year-old swimmer in one of the ads, and like most of the other women featured, she is definitely not a girl. There’s no doubt that the campaign has made a difference, “with 2.8 million more women and girls inspired to be more active”. But just as the sportswear manufacturers don’t represent me, #thisgirlcan doesn’t represent me as a woman in the campaign slogan.


By saying #thiswomancan, we encourage women to exercise and be active, not just girls – and what about #thiswomandoes, because many women already exercise and do not identify as girls. But if the rationale for using “girl” is because, for some women, girl is a term that suggests time to grow, to change – and if “woman” doesn’t mean that to them – then the problem is with how they perceive the term “woman”. If society sees “woman” as less hopeful, then we really do have a problem.

I met Sport England to discuss the new campaign. Our discussion focused around girl/woman, when is it OK to call a woman a girl, and why so many of us are irritated by the use of girl in the slogan. We mature at different rates: a 17-year-old friend calls herself a woman, a 30-year-old says she’s a woman at work and possibly not the rest of the time. We are able to shift if we want to, but there are many of us who would rather be called women all the time, whether on posters or in campaign slogans. The Women’s Equality party reaches out to women of all ages. If it were called the Girl’s Equality party, it would not.

What’s the problem with the word woman? How do we make ourselves proud to be called a woman? Is society at fault for applauding youth and frowning on age? A Guardian article said the new campaign “encourages women to challenge cultural assumptions about femininity that prevent them engaging in sport and exercise”. It’s a superb campaign, with so many different representations of women and an extract from Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Women. But the poem is called Phenomenal Women, not girls, this newspaper talks of encouraging women, not girls.

At Sport England I asked a stranger whether she called herself a girl or woman. She said she liked to think of herself as a girl, but she knew she was a woman. To her, woman is an old-fashioned term; girl offered promise. To me, calling a woman a girl is infantilising and patronising. It places me somewhere I used to be, but am no longer.

Supergirl has her older role model, and this year it’s Wonder Woman’s 75th anniversary. Perhaps the target audience for #thisgirlcan will include the over-70s next year, and we can all be wonder women.

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