I’ve yet to find a soul who did not love this year’s fabulous This Girl Can campaign. Now it seems the love has extended across the pond: this month sees the August issue of US Women’s Running magazine featuring a plus-sized model, Erica Schenk, on its cover, as well as giving her prominent coverage inside the magazine. Yes, it is still a little tedious that a magazine featuring anyone beyond a very specific body type should be headline news. But this is a big deal. And it’s received a wildly, gleefully positive response. As evidenced by This Girl Can, which showed women of all shapes, sizes and ages relishing sport for how it made them feel, not how it made them look, it is great to be reminded that most of us don’t exercise just to get thin. To see brands beyond campaigning ones starting to realise this is truly thrilling.
Since I have been writing about sport and exercise, I have been reminded again and again of how many women feel that sport is not for them because of the consistent archetype of what a “sporty woman” is. For too long, the marketing tactics have been the same, and heavily gendered: sport for men is a chance to see your mates; sport for women is a chance to get thinner. The same body type and the same message has been presented to women by brands for decades: the goal is size, not fitness, fun or socialising, whereas men are often seen playing sport as a natural part of the fabric of their lives – a cricket match as setting for a beer advertisement, a football match selling them chocolate. It’s hard not to read from this that our dimensions should be more important than our friendships.
We spent the summer watching the England football team playing to win, admiring their thighs for what they could achieve, not what they could fit into
This has meant we’ve slid into the assumption that anyone on a run above a size 10 is trying to change their body shape. Now, finally, the message is creeping out that there’s more to it than that. There are millions of reasons why we run, or exercise at all. For me, the shift in gaze from “what I look like” to “what I can see” when I exercise was fast and powerful, and I know from readers of Running Like A Girl that I am far from alone. Once you’ve made those first scary steps out of the house in some unforgiving Lycra, and felt the rush of endorphins instead of the laughter of the masses, you discover a world where anxiety and sleep can be better managed, friendships can be forged and self-perception can be entirely redefined. As Lena Dunham so brilliantly put it when she Instagrammed the body she inhabits with pride: “I know it's mad annoying when people tell you to exercise, and it took me about 16 medicated years to listen. I’m glad I did. It ain't about the ass, it's about the brain."
Now the ball is rolling, the positivity keeps coming. Online commenters questioned Serena Williams’ contentment with her own body, or its right to have the contours it does, and the response was quick and thorough. We spent the summer watching the England football team playing to win, admiring their thighs for what they could achieve, not what they could fit into. Even top-end retailer Net-A-Porter teamed with model and body activist Ashley Graham this year for an online Curvy Fit Club. Inactivity now kills twice as many people as obesity does. More importantly, the thrill of knowing what your body can do is a deeper, more intoxicating one than seeing what your body looks like.
Now the secret’s out, nobody wants to stop talking about it.