Researchers have documented myriad reasons why, both practical and cultural, including the perception among many British women that being active simply isn’t attractive.
Sports aren’t an integral part of public education in Britain but rather a luxury of the privileged, who enjoy superior facilities, coaching and competition on the well-tended playing fields of private schools. That largely explains why more than one-third of British Olympians in the 2008 Beijing Games were privately educated.
And when it comes to girls’ attitudes about sports, cultural pressures compound issues of class, with young women in Britain traditionally encouraged to be passive, decorative and thin as opposed to healthy. Blame it on this generation’s Twiggy, supermodel Kate Moss, who famously boasted, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”
The United States has confronted similar issues but had greater success tackling them with the legislative stick known as Title IX, which since 1972 has mandated equal opportunity for girls and boys, young women and men, in schools receiving federal funds.
With no analogous law in Britain, funding and support for women’s sports has suffered by comparison, said Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation, the nation’s leading advocacy group for women’s sports.
“We’ve never had the culture shock of Title IX, and you see that in British sport,” Tibballs said. “We look with envy at the fact that the brave step was taken in the United States. And we concede with pleasure the consequences — particularly in American women’s soccer, which we understand would just not be in the place it is had Title IX not happened.”
Here in Hyde Park, dozens of enthusiastic women don color-coded bibs that indicate their fitness level, form three groups accordingly, and start jogging the parking lot upon command.
“Shoulders back! Knees high! Head up! Chin up!” barks Paul, one of the instructors, with just the right touch of encouragement. “Pick it up, ladies! Go a little bit quicker. Good stuff!”
Then he jogs off toward a hill carrying a backpack laden with water bottles for his class, and the blue-bibbed group falls in line.
A former royal hunting ground in one of London’s more affluent neighborhoods, Hyde Park makes a lovely setting for an hour-long exercise class. Push-ups, sit-ups and shadow boxing don’t seem as arduous against a backdrop of swans gliding around lakes and Londoners trotting by on horseback. But there’s no mistaking an essential hook of British Military Fitness for many female participants.