A Yonder Whitepaper series


Mind your own body

What changes, then, as girls progress into secondary education? The introduction of a new culture – and social pressures surrounding this – play a sure part in shaping attitudes towards sport, and layering leisure time with competing priorities. Yet, research suggests that the biggest barrier facing adolescent girls comes with developing bodies.

When I was younger, there was more focus on being good. Whereas now there has been a shift to a lack of confidence in body image and appearance. I think that’s a big priority now […] that younger age group has a vulnerability around puberty and [body] changes, and not feeling that safety and security in a sporting environment when you’re changing clothes.

Sports expert (Rugby)

As girls mature, body image remains a pressing concern for women of all ages. Indeed, a considerable 1 in 2 women (49%) consider body confidence a primary reason for not participating in sport, exercise, or physical activity. Albeit still pertinent, this figure falls to less than 1 in 3 among men, whose primary barriers to exercise include a lack of time, feeling that they’re not good enough at the sport, and prohibitive costs (44%, 44%, and 41% respectively). In other words, the evidence implies that a primary concern among men is not ‘being’ good. For women, meanwhile, it’s not ‘looking’ good. Despite this, female interview participants comment with equal conviction on the physical and mental hurdles associated with puberty, childbirth, menopause, and ageing.

Yonder’s 2019 whitepaper closed with the command ‘Don’t lose them young’. The 2019 study found that, from as early as 7, young girls’ relationships with sports were more negative – or at the very least, more ambivalent – than their male counterparts. This remains a challenge today, and one which participants perceive as most pertinent when young girls approach puberty.

Periods impact [participation] for all kinds of reasons… practical and emotional.

Sports retailer

The developing teenage body features highly within a list of factors deterring pre-adolescent girls from taking part in physical activity or sports – particularly those which require exposing and tight-fitting clothes such as swimsuits or leotards. Notwithstanding that boys face their own myriad of insecurities around puberty, these two factors are unique in demanding additional investments from girls and parents alike. For many young women and girls, the discomforts associated with menstruation and developing breasts are enough to dissuade them from exercise in the first place, or create serious hurdles which, ultimately, result in them abandoning a former sport.

I had this girl who was in her late teens […] she’s been bandaging down her breasts to dance […] That’s an education piece she should have seen earlier in school around the priorities and how spending £50 on a sports bra is the right thing to do, because you’ll have it all year.

Sports retailer

Education is an important step to lessening these obstacles, whether from caregivers, schools, or formal campaigns. Yet, this is where brands are stepping forward to own an untapped space. The past ten years have seen the emergence of custom-fitted sports bras, innovative period products, and sporting equipment aimed specifically at the female body and its nuanced needs, but no single name appears to have dominated the space. When asked which brands and bodies were taking a leadership role within women’s sports, no one brand was identified as currently leading the way. So now is the time.

Time to put women at the heart of consumer insight. Time to rethink strategy. Time to drive innovation.

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