Women’s football could be the key to helping girls tackle body image issues

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The impact of this year’s Women’s World Cup on TV audiences has been incredible. 

A record breaking 28.1 million people watched the BBC’s coverage of the tournament – that’s 47 per cent of the UK population.

For one whole month we had the pleasure of switching on our television, engaging with in-depth coverage and immersing ourselves in a tournament where inspirational athletes took to the field to give it their all, with the England team just one small example of that.  

Before the tournament began Fran Kirby released a powerful message via the Players’ Tribune about coping with the grief of losing her mother.

Former England and Chelsea winger Karen Carney is another example of someone who has opened up on struggles of her own and coping with self-harm and depression. 

Everywhere you look there is an endless supply of athletes doing what they can to spread positive messages. 

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Megan Rapinoe, Marta, Sam Kerr, Alex Morgan, there is certainly no shortage of female role models.

However, a short browse through the national headlines will highlight another TV phenomenon receiving blockbuster ratings.

Throughout the World Cup, Love Island has also been on our airwaves on a daily basis – a programme largely based on the looks of its contestants. 

Airbrushed photography and hyper-sexualised content in the mainstream media, and on social media, is just a click away for everyone including young schoolgirls. 

The day after the FIFA World Cup came to an end, Essex County Council released a report that found 64 per cent of girls in Year 10-13 in the county said they wanted to lose weight. 

Furthermore, 32 per cent of them said they have nothing to eat or drink for breakfast. 

And there is a similar theme with girls at younger age groups. The study highlighted Year 7-9 students in the county, where 47 per cent of them said they wanted to lose weight and 26 per cent said they have nothing to eat or drink for breakfast.

Body image issues for young girls is not a new problem and the results of this research hardly comes as a surprise.

Parents say it is the influence of social media, and the pressure to look like the contestants on programmes such as Love Island, that constantly leaves these girls thinking they are not good enough. 

That can lead to further issues with mental health and it is a big problem that needs to be addressed across the country.

So just imagine what would happen if we focused on messages like Marta’s rallying cry to young girls.

“Women’s football depends on you to survive,” said the 33-year-old. “Think about it, value it more.”

Speaking on the pitch following the defeat in Le Havre, and with tears in her eyes, she cried: “We’re asking for support, you have to cry at the beginning and smile at the end.

“It’s about wanting more, it’s about training more, it’s about looking after yourself more, it’s about being ready to play 90 minutes and then 30 minutes more.

“So that’s why I am asking the girls. There’s not going to be a Formiga forever, there’s not going to be a Marta forever.”

Powerful stuff. 

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Think what the possibilities would be if girls followed the example of Lucy Bronze, a player who never gave up when the going got tough and went on to become the best right-back in the world. 

Consider what might happen if more girls had someone like Rapinoe to look up to, a woman who has defied her own president in her belief that you should always be proud of who you are.

Quite rightly the focus in the UK is now centred on how we can grow the women’s game and increase spectatorship in grounds.

 Just think how the visibility of our women’s footballers, both on TV and in stadiums, could help empower girls who are struggling to deal with their body image issues. 

If women’s football grows as we hope it does, and more girls are exposed to the bravery of someone like Kirby, then that will be the true legacy of this World Cup.

Follow Alasdair on Twitter at @adjhooper1992

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