Looking for some motivation to hit the gym? Earlier this month, This Girl Can took the internet by storm with its exuberant, joyous campaign. It’s just the tonic we need to tackle the bleak depths of January, says Nell Frizzell.
Four weeks after my son was conceived, I lay on the floor of a prefab boxing gym in Romford having a medicine ball dropped on my stomach as I did sit up after sit up after sit up. (I didn’t, I might as well add, know I was pregnant at the time.)
Then, three weeks after giving birth I swam through ice in an outdoor pond, breastmilk heaving against my black and white bikini, as my mother rocked my tiny son to sleep in a sling.
Six months after giving birth I completed a half marathon in under two hours, having thoroughly and entirely pissed through a sanitary towel, pair of knickers and some sky blue leggings on the way.
So you can imagine the thrill that shot through my entire body, the soar in my heart and quickening of my pulse, as I watched the latest This Girl Can campaign advert. Called Me Again, soundtracked by Little Simz’s Offence and directed by Kim Gehrig, the one-minute film is probably the most uplifting sports montage I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa running through the surf in vest bras and hot pants.
The brilliance of this latest film – celebrating the fifth anniversary of Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign, aimed to get more women moving – is that, as well as tackling the big supposed ‘barriers’ to fitness (age, weight, disability, income) it is also taking on the subtler things that may lead women to feel incapable or unwilling to participate in physical activity.
Yes, there are women of different ages, abilities, races and sizes, swimming, playing football, running and climbing. Thank god for that. Thank god.
But we also see a breastfeeding mother playing basketball and a woman with a tampon string dangling out of her knickers doing yoga. We see women of different cultural backgrounds sweating and bending away beside each other. We see mothers exercising. We see women with muscles and body fat and hair and cellulite getting out there and doing their thing. These are the taboos that are being brilliantly harpooned with a joyful message of inclusion, accessibility and positivity.
There are, you see, certain implicit messages that people like me were given in our formative years that it can take literally decades to shake off; that menstruation is debilitating, that certain bodies are targets for public judgement and that early motherhood must be sedentary.
For some women, of course, periods are hard work and they do want to spend the first few months of their child’s life at home being cosy. In no way do I want to criticise or undermine anybody who experiences their body that way. But too often, the phenomena that are largely experienced by those who identify as women – bleeding, breasts, fertility, pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding – are simultaneously seen as ‘problems’ in our physical life.
For some of us, periods can give a spike of energy, heat and fury that all but begs to be turned into exercise. For many of us, our large legs, wobbling arms and wide shoulders make us brilliant at certain sports. For many of us, those nocturnal, milk-soaked hours of early parenthood demand a crisp, fresh-aired, heart-beating counterpoint in running, swimming, football or rock climbing.
We can’t all do it all, of course. But all of us can try all of it.
When I was unwillingly single in my late 20s, I joined an informal heartbreak climbing club. It was made up of friends who met every week to boulder their way around the old cooling towers of a former Victorian pumping station. We would watch one particularly peacocking man with biceps like sweet potatoes grunting and struggling away in an over-tight T-shirt adorned with investment banking logos, as a tiny balletic woman of colour flew up the wall beside him like lightning.
Watching Farrah in the advert (you can read lots of the girls’ bios on This Girl Can’s website) hang from a climbing wall, a bag of chalk at her back, her arms tensed and huge, I am reminded of that time, of the power that I felt, of the camaraderie and the courage. Of how it healed my heart to move my body.
I do not exercise to be thin (I’m not particularly thin). I do not exercise to be more attractive (I’m not particularly attractive). I do not exercise to prove myself to anybody else (nobody cares).
Instead, I exercise because it gives me a purpose: a purpose to be outside, to step away from childcare for a few hours, to be among like-minded people and to feel strong, to feel alone, to feel exhilarated and alive. That is what This Girl Can reminds me. This is why, having watched the film at least 10 times in the last hour, I am aching to pull on a pair of trainers and fly. It is why I am, as yet, unable to get through a single viewing of the film without a lump in my throat and actual tears in my eyes.
And no, that’s not because my period is coming. Jog on.
This piece was originally published on 15 January 2020
Images: This Girl Can