September 20

This Girl Can challenge gender stereotypes

I have been following the public shaming of a number of shoe shops for selling ‘flimsy’ footwear for girls with great interest over the summer. The last few weeks of the summer holiday are a ritual for most families, with feet being measured and school shoes being chosen. I certainly recall finding that the girls’ section in shoe shops contained Mary Janes or ballet pumps and very little that protected growing feet from winter weather.

Anna Kessel, a sports writer for The Guardian, argues that the battle against sexist school shoes is a fight that is worth having. She points out that whether or not you are ideologically invested in children’s footwear, the most important thing is that children’s feet are warm and dry and that boys’ shoes are sturdy and cover the whole foot and are ideal for running and adventuring, whilst girls’ shoes slip off far too easily for them to be adventuring. As a sports writer, Kessel is concerned about girls’ lack of participation in sport – ‘This Girl Can’ has had £10 million of public funds poured into it and yet the shoes on offer to young girls are preventing them from being physically active. Her argument is that this inability to take part in adventures that stems from being unable to run about in ballet pumps feeds into the fact that two million fewer 14-40 year old women than men participate in sport. Sport England have found that the main reason for the lack of participation is that women fear being judged.

Kessel argues that girls receive messages about gender when they shop for their school shoes; football is for boys because the football motifs appear only in the boys’ section and that girls will have already learned which toys, careers, hobbies and colours they should be interested in. As long as school shoes remain gendered, she argues, girls will rarely play ball games on the playground. If Kessel were to visit Blackheath High School she would have a very different experience of girls in the playground – she would probably struggle to keep up with the girls racing around and playing games, but she raises an interesting point about how products are explicitly marketed to girls and boys much more so now than they were in the early 1980s for example. In the Sears Catalogue from 1975 for example, less than 2% of the advertisements for toys were explicitly marketed to girls or boys so it is troubling that we are raising a generation of children who are exposed to ideas about gender that are potentially regressive. You may have seen the Jacques Peretti BBC documentary ‘The Men Who Make Us Spend’, in which he demonstrated that children are increasingly targeted as mini consumers; why sell one box of Lego when you can sell two by gendering the colours? 

Kessel’s points are certainly food for thought and at Blackheath High School we challenge gender stereotypes wherever we find them, with our Mighty Girls to our Feminist Society we embrace the ethos of ‘This Girl Can’ in the widest possible sense – and she won’t be held back by her shoes. 

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