Row like a girl

The amazing Georgie (@row.like.a.girl) shared her experience on motivation and women in sport.

I grew up in Kent, England and was quite sporty as a child. I was always a good sprinter and would win the 100m race at school! Apart from this, I played netball, hockey and did athletics at school.

In 2011, I did a learn to row course at Bewl Bridge Rowing Club in Kent. I rowed there for four years and loved it! When I was 17, I rowed for Molesey Boat Club for one year before joining Oxford Brookes University for my undergraduate degree. I rowed in my first year of uni, before deciding to take a break from rowing. In my third year, I applied to the University of Oxford for postgraduate studies and was shocked when I got in. Of course, I was excited because I knew I would have the opportunity to trial for the Oxford Blue Boat, for the prestigious boat race. I was selected for the 2020 crew, however, due to C-19, the race was cancelled.

As a junior, I had the chance to trial for the GB junior team. At the time, I did not really know what was going on! Looking back, I had some incredible opportunities which I am grateful for. After some promising water and ergo performances, my coach encouraged me to consider trialling. When I was an under-16, I went to trials for the first time. It was a great experience, even if I came second to last! I was young at the time but being exposed to the fierce competition with the best athletes in the country put things into perspective and gave me something to aim for. The following season, I went back to trial and knew what to expect. Somehow, I managed to score myself a seat the Munich International Regatta before being selected for the Junior Worlds team in the Women’s Four. We were lucky enough to get to trial the course in Rio de Janeiro in 2015, as a trial venue for the Olympics. The following year, I trialled again and everything was going well until the summer when I had to withdraw due to health problems.

I would describe myself as highly opinionated and developed political views when I was quite young. I could not understand why there were less opportunities for women in sport and it angered me. On TV, men received more sports coverage. When I was in the gym, I found boys making negative comments about my body and strength. At school, there was an attitude that being thin was the only goal in life; if you didn’t meet the expected body standard, then you would be bullied. As a rower, I became muscular with big thighs! This led to bullying based on my size, which hurt at the time but looking back, I feel sorry for the girls who bullied me. They were insecure about their own bodies and bought into an idea of beauty which is unrealistic. Reflecting on this, I realise how damaging this was to my mental health. While I have now moved on from this, it motivated me to educate and provide information to young girls which talks about exercise from the perspective of wellbeing and health, rather than the aesthetic ‘I have got to be thin to be happy’ state of mind.

All these experiences fired me up. I wanted to do something about it, so when I was 17, I had a blog which discussed gender (in)equality in sport. It was highly contentious at the time and attracted the attention of an Olympic rower and Henley Steward that I won’t name… Looking back, while what I wrote was true, it was focussed on problems rather than solutions. Rowing this year at the University of Oxford after having a break from the sport reignited my interest in these pertinent issues, like equality and inclusivity. While I still agree with what I wrote on my previous blog, I wanted Row Like a Girl to take a more positive tone which addresses problems but also serves to celebrate and empower women.

I was motivated to set up Row Like a Girl from my collective experiences in sport and life. In general, I do not think that there are enough female sporting role models or opportunities for women to have a voice in the world. There are not enough discussions on women in sport and it is important to have a platform which addresses issues such as body image, weight and gender equality. As well as this, it is a positive platform which celebrates the achievements of women. The combination of the lack of the female voice and my sporting experiences drove me to establish a platform based on tackling the tough questions and promoting female involvement in sport. Of course, in an ideal world, we would have utopian inclusivity and equality in sport. The reality is, that will take time. There are major social, political and economic barriers which need to be addressed first. We are not talking about a small change here, there are dramatic societal transformations needed. My blog is starting a conversation which I hope sparks a continuation of these relevant issues. I hope to expand my discussion to other sports soon!

My biggest rowing achievement to date was being selected for the Oxford Blue Boat. It is about more than the race; you become part of the historical legacy of the Boat Race which is an incredible feeling. Additionally, this race was particularly special to me because it is important for female inclusion in sport. The Boat Race only included women on the Tideway in 2015. To be part of a club which marks significant female progression is symbolic for me and I hope to see the culture of inclusivity and equality in rowing improving more.

Since establishing Row Like a Girl, I have opened Pandora’s Box. It is amazing to see how quickly the conversation spiralled and spread across the globe. I am in touch with people from across Europe, Australia, Hong Kong and Russia – to name just a few countries. It has become clear that my experiences as a female athlete are just the tip of the iceberg. I have been overwhelmed with the responses to my posts, having received hundreds of messages from people informing me of their negative experience in the sport as a result of being a woman. From these responses, I realise that this conversation is imperative. It is comforting to know that many have experienced similar things. However, it is equally upsetting to hear that so many women have been body-shamed or experience negative comments about their muscular physique. On top of this, many women have described the detrimental impact on their mental health. These issues are under-discussed and require more investigation. I do not have all the answers, but I hope that by starting the conversation we can work towards solutions.

While there is more work to be done, we have taken the first step. I am excited about the future of this project. Ultimately, my dream would be to set up an organisation which targets inclusivity of women in sport (not just rowing) and aims to keep women in sport. There is a major issue with female drop-out rates, especially in the teenage years. Across Britain, women are generally inactive compared to men – but women also do less sport than men. If we can get more women into sport and keep them engaged, then it would likely improve the participation rates and boost health and fitness. On top of this, we need to change the image of sport. Sport should be about wellbeing, health and fitness – not aesthetics. I have a major problem with the Instagram accounts aimed at getting the perfect body, because I think it instils the wrong message. Our bodies do not need to meet a beauty standard. We are all unique, and I believe that encouraging girls into sport to improve their mental and physical wellbeing is the right approach. Telling a 14 year she needs a thigh gap or to get rid of her hip dips is going to cause more problems than it solves! Nonetheless, I love Instagram as a platform as it allows an international conversation to occur. Both men and women are engaging, which I find incredibly motivating. I love the dynamism and diversity that Instagram provides, being able to rapidly communicate with women across the globe who share a mutual interest in rowing.

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