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Women’s football and the systematic girlifying of the sport

Women work and women sweat, it’s time to show them in all their gross glory

Belgium v Netherlands - UEFA Women’s Euro 2017: Group A Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

At some point in my life, I’ve been sat in a room somewhere in the world with some important people. They were talking about women’s football and about how they were marketing it to girls; they were (basically) editing it to make it more palatable. How were they doing this? By removing the tackles and selling the product without them.

Tackles were too rough, too dirty, too dangerous. Girls are precious and wouldn’t like that type of thing. The conversation carried on around me, my face a canvas for my incredulity, the tickertape of “whatthefuckwhatthefuckwhatthefuckwhatthefu” that scrolled through my brain broadcast for all to see.

Trying to edit down football isn’t just offensive to me as a football fan but as a woman. Women come in all different shapes and sizes, some in skirts, some in trousers— some really perverse ones even wear skorts. But over and over again, we’re shown the pared down female footballer, the one ready for a press conference with thick mascara and glossy hair, not the footballer that stumbles off of the pitch at half time sweaty and tousled. We’re sold the idea of a girly girl who just happens to kick footballs, femininity paramount in a word where strength is reserved as a description for the masculine.

It’s an altered reality peddled by those in boardrooms, the full spectrum of womanhood left under-represented.

(Image: Copyright Scarlet Page, free for editorial use)

That’s what we’re told, isn’t it? Men are strong, brave, hunter-gatherers. Women are still just little girls who should spend their time playing house; they don’t even like to watch sports as they’re too violent. It’s over-exaggerated, of course, but that’s the mark of the society we still live in where the traditional gender roles and societal norms dominate the subconscious.

Every sport, whether it be literally getting punched in the face or dancing around with a ribbon, carries blood, sweat and tears. The (career) life of a gymnast is grueling, and, usually, short. Just as the life of a boxer, a footballer, a swimmer, a sprinter, an ice hockey player, a…

The life of an athlete is an extended uphill climb (especially if you’re a mountaineer). To be a footballer, or tennis or rugby player, you learn to channel your inner Sisyphus.

The grind, the grit, it’s endless and to try and take the tackling out of football to make it something girl-friendly turns my stomach more than watching a player break their leg. Seeing a shard of tibia poke through the bloodied flesh is less nauseating.

Oh my, just do it

There are many reasons to like Nike’s promotional videos for women’s sport and equality (although Nike’s views on motherhood have recently come under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons). For so long women in all walks of life have been told, “No, you can’t.” But Nike is saying a simple, “yes you can.” And beyond that, the videos that stick out aren’t the cutesy, you can be a princess too stories, but the mud-stained, rain-slicked, this is what it takes stories. This is the story behind the woman.

We rally around them because it’s not just a “yes you can,” nor is it the glossy, “Look, success!” but rather the grind, the reminder that just because you get knocked down, you can get back up again.

In the same year that The FA partnered with Disney and turned half of the England women’s squad into primped and preened princesses for the day, This Girl Can (a National Lottery sponsored project) ran this advert.

Whilst The FA were still concerned with trying to market the domestic leagues and national team exclusively to young girls (a strategy that they have thankfully rethought), This Girl Can is about getting girls and women back into some kind of regular physical activity. The reasons girls drop out of sports are numerous, but often body image is at the route, so as women we let ourselves become sedentary and unhealthy. There is a shame that comes with going to the gym when you don’t already possess a gym-bod, being the one wheezing, sweaty woman on the exercise bikes surrounded by those already trim and well-toned.

This Girl Can isn’t about trying to get young girls into football but about telling women and girls of all ages, all abilities, all races, all sizes; all women, that no matter what sport: yes, they bloody well can.

In the video that followed Germany’s World Cup squad announcement earlier this month, the DFB and sponsors Commerzbank reminded the world that as a reward for winning their first title, the women’s team were given a tea set. This from a federation that had banned women’s football from 1955 to 1970. The video is brazen; most Germans don’t know about the team, or their successes, or how the players battle against prejudice and sexism every day yet continue to fight.

Women’s football is still regarded as novelty, presented and sold as a different sport. The narrative is on the feel-good, the sob stories, the adversity and the simple triumph of women even playing. It’s too often sold in place of the actual football— those who have to juggle three jobs just to play, those who almost retired in their 20s as they didn’t have the medical cover to repair a damaged ACL in a timely fashion. The stories remain an important part of the game, but the balance is off; the analysis and in-depth way we look at men’s football gets pushed to the side too often, the sport sold with an apology for what it’s not.

Yet throughout all this struggling, the focus when it comes to video content is the success, the win without the struggle. Sweat mopped from the brows, the winning penalty the resounding image, the months and years leading up to it swept under the rug. Photoshop is working overtime to edit out the most important aspects, the imperfections, the failures, the drive.

Watered down

Women’s football is categorized as football or women’s football. It’s either exactly the same as men’s or completely different and there is a clear lack of middle ground: black or white, no overlap.

It’s a debate that rages on. Some players will say it’s the same, others that it’s different; so too the media and the fans. Selling football without tackles, showing players in their kits under 17 layers of make-up, isn’t football. The princess adverts miss the salient reality. The ease of showing the players made-up as if they were attending a wedding is in contradiction to actual shots of them during and after matches, muddied and bruised and overlooked.

Girls can be princesses just like they can play football— it doesn’t have to be one of the other. Girls and women can wear pretty dresses and the same woman can take to a football pitch without any make-up on, her socks pulled high enough to mask surgery scars, her messy bun falling apart in the torrential rain. She can go in for a slide tackle, in the mud and the rain, committing 100% to winning the ball, sending the opposition player flying. There is nothing that stops a woman from being both a princess and a warrior. But the reticence of the marketing companies to show both sides of the coin, to show all one person is, is willfully negligent.

Which is what made the inclusion of a shot of a girl spitting out a mouthful of blood after having been fouled so striking when it appeared in an advert for OBOS Damallsvenskan earlier this year. Participating in sport isn’t pretty. It’s not all glamour and titles. For many it’s a pursuit without medals and trophies and for others it’s a hobby. It’s not all mud and tackles but it is work, just as it is for men in sport. It’s long hours, sleepless nights, and sweat.

Everyday women battle against sexism in the office, on the pitch, at home, and everywhere in between. The pressure put on them to be pretty and preened is a constant onslaught. Femininity is valued highly; a sweating woman is a gross woman. Muscles aren’t delicate, bruises and bumps can’t always be hidden by make-up, tracksuits aren’t fashionable.

The more we sell the idea of groomed women, using shots of press conferences and glory, the more we drift from the reality of the work that is involved in reaching the top. Or just the eternal grind to take the next step, whichever rung of the ladder you’re on. The reality of women’s football isn’t pretty, especially for the majority of those involved; there should be a celebration of the glory, but it should always come with the struggle. The new wave of promotional videos drives the understanding home; if you want it, you have to work for it but if you want it, you can achieve it.

At the end of the day, women’s sport is sport, with all the blood, sweat and tears. Photoshopping them out isn’t helping anyone, long live the sweaty, the dirty, and the bruised.