Everything We Learned From ELLE's Strong Beyond Measure Talk

Why sport matters to women


In celebration of ELLE's Strong Women issue, (which featured Beyonce on the cover) and in a collaboration with activewear brand Ivy Park, ELLE's Editor in chief Lorraine Candy hosted a discussion last Friday about the role sport plays in uniting physical and mental health for women.

She was joined on the panel by Jess Cartner-Morley, Guardian's Fashion Editor, Hayley Jarvis, from Mind Charity, free surfer Sophie Everard and Lauren Cuthbertson, Principal of The Royal Ballet. 


With 80% of young girls giving up sport at the age of 13, 57% of women being put off from sport due to bad experiences at school, and 43% believing sport is too competitive for them to take part in, the discussion looked at the ways in which we can encourage women to remain engaged in sport. Here's some of the things we learned.

1. Physical activity is great for our mental health

Whilst sport has great impacts on our body physically, it also has a positive effect on our mental health. Not only does it raise our endorphin level and increase our mood, it also helps us to sleep better, and improves our overall confidence and self-esteem. This is why is it vital to keep young girls interested in sport.


2. Workout gear is important

Young girls are often put off from sport in school because of the tired, unflattering clothes they are required to wear (remember the the short, ill-fitting skirts of cross country?). In order to remove this problem, we need to think about introducing kits that are more comfortable and accessible, and which ultimately serve to make young girls feel good about themselves. Ranges such as Ivy Park are therefore important, because they offer both support and aesthetic appeal, at an affordable price. 

Activewear has now become part of the fashion conversation, having been featured on a number of runways. This reflects not only the fact that fitness has become a huge part of our lives now, but also the fact that women have started to reclaim physical activity, as a way to feel positive and capable within themselves. Women make up 50% of the population, and should therefore be able to claim sport as much as men do, both in terms of actually doing it, and how they look whilst doing so.

The recently revealed Olympics kit for Team GB, designed by Stella McCartney, marks a key turning point for this. Guardian Fashion Editor Jess remembers speaking to Stella, who was horrified to discover that, until this point, no-one had ever designed a kit specifically for women - the men's kit was just re-sized. By making kit that specifically suits female needs, and that makes women feel comfortable, more women will be encouraged to take part in sport. 

3. Confidence is key

As Sophie notes, in many sports, including surfing, you may be the only woman in the line-up. Having the confidence to say I can do this, I deserve to be out here, and I can hold my own against everyone else, is key to helping you succeed. Whilst Sophie initially found it intimidating training with men, she has since learnt to accept that she trains just as hard as they do, if not more, and can therefore feel confident in her ability. 


4. The language surrounding women and sport needs to change

80% of sponsorship and funding for sport in the media is centred around male football. In order to change the perception of women and sport, we need to change the language around it. To do this, we need to think about the female body not just as something decorative, but as something that is functional, healthy, fit and strong. This is why athleisure as an industry can have a positive input, as it changes the way we look at women's bodies. By framing female bodies in this way, it becomes something that everyone can understand, and that young women can relate to.  

5. We need to be resilient 

If you find a sport you enjoy, you need to be resilient and stick with it, in order to truly reap the rewards. Sophie believes that women have a tendency to drop things when they get difficult, whereas men find it easier to break down that barrier and be more tenacious. But whilst it might be difficult, challenging, or just a bit sweaty, you need to find a way to break past those moments, in order to feel the positive effects. If you're not naturally tenacious, it can help to reach out and gain the support of others, or find a female role model that can inspire you to keep going.

6. Role models are important

With the Olympics fast approaching, Britain is about to receive a whole host of female role models. Jess believes that we need to showcase these women in the media, in order to help engage more women in sport. By celebrating these women, who are really pushing themselves to achieve something brilliant, we will encourage more women to get active. 

Lauren believes it is important for her to be a role model to younger dancers. In ballet, the message for young girls is not be so body conscious, and not to compare yourself to others; the minute you start comparing yourself, you start to doubt your own ability. It is important to remember that whilst you are looking at other people, they will be looking at you, most often wishing they had something you had. Not comparing yourself to others will reduce your level of self-consciousness, and encourage you to continue with the sport. 


By celebrating the success of women, whether they be Olympic athletes or your neighbour, and coming to view them as role models, rather than competition to compare yourself to, you will ultimately come to have better mental wellbeing, and be inspired to stay active.

7. We need to forget the word 'sport'

The word sport can be a real turn-off for women. If we start to use phrases such as physical activity, more women may be encouraged to take it up. Similarly, if we start to celebrate the positivity around the activities people can try, and discuss the health benefits, rather than the sporting aspect of it, more women may feel less scared to try something new. 


Fitness professionals and coaches need to recognise that there are different kinds of people within fitness. Whilst some may be incredibly confident, others may not have done any sport since they dropped their gym pants at the age of 14. By using phrases such as physical activity, they will be able to motivate people better, encouraging them to return. Fitness professionals are there to help people on their journey, both mentally and physically, and therefore need to think carefully about the phrases they are using.

8. Finding time for exercise helps with mindfulness

In the age of social media, going to a class after work, or going for run, may be the only hour of the day you spend without your phone. It's important to realise that it's not not just the exercise that makes you feel good, it's taking some time out to disconnect form the world and focus on yourself. 

9. We need more women in sport

To end the discussion, the panelists were asked a key question: if you could do one thing to encourage more girls to get into sport, what would it be? 

Hayley: 'I would encourage more role models; real women, with real stories. Athletes are fantastic and celebrity role models, but actually real women sharing real stories from across society. Having that diversity - obviously in terms of Mind, women with mental health problems - but women from across society sharing their stories, talking about why being active benefits them, how they do it, and how they build it in. But also remembering that it's okay to start something, to try something new, to give up, that's normal behaviour journey in terms of sport and activity.'

Sophie: 'Just keep it simple. Think about something you used to enjoy as a teenager. That might be netball with your friends or going for a run, something that made you smile and sweat when you were younger. If you've found you've fallen out of love with fitness or sport, just think about that feeling and pick it up and go with it.'

Lauren: 'Today I am doing something for the younger generation of dancers. I'm giving a masterclass in Jersey and instead of calling it a masterclass I've called it a workshop. They did ask me for specifications - did they have to be a certain grade, what do I want them to wear - and I said anyone, from 10-18, with any experience or any background, wear anything you feel comfortable in, and that was my message to them; anyone can come. I think including everyone is a good message.'

Jess: 'Make time for yourself. Allow yourself to do it. As women, we tend to be quite hard on ourselves, and we're always doing things for other people. I just think, book it in, say I'm going to this class or I'm going for a run now, and just believe in yourself that you're worth that time for yourself. Do something that's going to make you healthier and stronger and feel better.'

Lorraine: 'I have a 13 years old and a 12 year old daughter, and for me, I think schools need to think about how they talk to young women about sport. I have one who loves it, and one who absolutely hates it and will never take part at all, because the language around it in her school hasn't been particularly helpful to her.You have to have competitive areas of it, you have to have teams and people have to want to win, but there is a group as well that don't, but still want to take part.'

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