New Year, New You? Buy Activewear! (but leave young girls alone, eh Matalan?)

We've all seen it. Not two mince pies after you've packed or scrapped the ole Christmas tree and some advert is telling you to burn off your festive weight by committing to a gym membership or investing in some Activewear. Its the new year, don't you want a new body to go with it? Getting thin and staying thin is seen as the ultimate goal pushed on women of all ages - we all want to be fit and healthy, sure, but is this the right marketing campaign for young girls? and why are boys excluded? We take a look at how one retailer - Matalan - is spinning (and running with) January's Athleisure marketing.

A few days ago a supporter of LCBC got in touch via Facebook (thank you Ana!) to raise concerns about an email campaign from Matalan, that seemed to suggest boys were exempt from the retailers new years resolution get fit marketing.

"Today I opened an email from Matalan which had an empowering-sounding subject but actually promoted workout clothes for the "full family," comprising women, men, and young girls. Young girls this age should be playing sports or engaging in active lifestyles, not joining in the January weight loss craze. " Ana Harrison

Just as the Easter egg stands start popping up on Boxing day, there are certain points of the year when brands go all out to capitalise on what we love, and perhaps more importantly, what we fear. During the run up to Christmas we are pushed from every angle to spend, acquire and consume (lets make this the best Christmas EVER!), followed immediately afterwards by the drive to purge and flog. Too much stuffing? Get unstuffed with our gym membership! Too much time plopped in front of the box? Buy activewear and feel like you're getting active! As millions lost each year in unused gym membership suggests, sometimes we are simply buying into an idea rather than actually changing anything.

Of course there are those who welcome the inclusion of girls in this marketing campaign (the slightly more sensible comments in the Daily Mail...) because it tackles childhood obesity and the killer amount of sugar and lethargy in our lives. Sounds great? To which I apply my usual cynicism. This is, after all, a post-xmas marketing campaign that seeks profits not philanthropy, and which clearly does more to make people feel inadequate, rather than informed about their choices. Our fears as women have long been the target of the Gear for New Year marketeers - there are millions to be made after all. The UK fitness industry grew by 4.7% to £10.4 million in gym memberships alone last year - which will inevitably require kitting up in a lot of active-wear. Ignoring the products, this is a marketing campaign and nothing about it, from the wording to the imagery, is by chance. Its the New Year, its January - its the time to make promises about our future that most of us won't keep. Its an easy win for the marketing team, who like some medieval road-side apothecary, have cures for all our ills. The marketing matters here more than the product - so lets take a look at Matalan's website - which had over 10 million visit in November alone - from the home page on.

1. Home page, 1 of 2 slide promotions. (WIN January by being an athletic woman)

2. Main "Souluxe" homepage - shop womens, mens or girls (no boys)

3. Base image of the same page (no boys - plus women support, men change things and girls shine)

4. Women's view of the range - note "mum and daughter" or mini-me images (no boys)

5. Search "souluxe girls" - 34 items

6. Search "souluxe boys" - 0 items

7. Search "boys sportswear" - 0 products

8. Search "boys activewear" - 0 products

9. Because, after all, those are the suggested options for girls...

9. There's also the navigation bar

What should we make of this? Boys aren't active, or at least not in January? Most of the description for the girls products are fixated on "dance and sports lessons" which shows some sensitivity (ie, avoiding language around changing your body for new year), but the lack of boys products speaks volumes. Do I think boys are missing out? Perhaps not at Matalan, whose boyswear section stocks ample on-trend jogging bottoms and staple t-shirts (though no leggings), but it seems that girls being added to "new year new you" is an easier pill to swallow. Boys are not taught to slim down and tone up, they are encouraged instead to grow strong and beat the opposition. Girls should be active, sure, but is this an appropriate marketing campaign for children? If it was, then I have to wonder why there is no kids or children's section - why are girls picked out, and not boys? Is it because it is easier to make girls (who will one day morph into women) afraid in the same way women are told to fear looking wrong? What would be the benefits of preparing girls this way? Of course, kitted out (feeding this issue nicely) in slimmed down activewear, you'll need crop tops, racer back vests, zip jackets, leggings and trainers. Oh, and water bottle, bag plus other accessories. Better start saving! Its like no on got fit before lycra...

There are nearly double the number of products for women and girls as men in the Matalan Souluxe range, ie Women - purge yourselves! and so young girls follow. For the product itself there's a practical problem here also - ie, what does a 2 year old need an active-wear crop top for? (with its sweat wicking technical fabric) Yet in all seriousness, shouldn't we be challenging the worst excesses of this message, ie fast fashion is bad, you can't buy your way out of a problem and vitally, self-esteem should never be pinned on an ideal look. You don't need to be familiar with Naomi Woolfe to know that women face a litany of unrealistic body standards imposed by commerce and mass media. "Girls lives would be better if they weren't judged for the way they look and what they wear" stated one young girl interviewed for the 2018 Girl Guiding Attitudes Survey, which also reported that 80% of 11-21 year old's felt there was too much discussion about women's body shape in the media. Women also feature exclusively in Marks and Spencer's January fitness campaign, called "Goodmove" and designed for the "modern mover," the range features 131 items and is promoted via the companies homepage. Men's standard sportswear is highlighted under the Men category titled "reset refresh renew" and the image of a man sprightly leaping up a mountain, but I struggled to find any clothing described as "tummy sculpting" or perfect for hitting the high street in (ie, athleisure) There is a standard for women, not expected of men - and young girls should absolutely be protected from it, otherwise aren't girls going to follow in our mistakes? Instead of teaching healthy lifestyles and positive self-image, aren't we instead allowing retailers to groom the next generation of female consumers? In 2018 British women alone spent almost £30 BILLION on clothing alone. THIRTY BILLION. That's £30'000'000'000. Who wants to call time on all that money money money? Being active and keeping fit should not be dependent on something that you can buy.

So what is the answer? Being active and keeping fit should be for life, and not just for after Christmas - we know that - but ads that imply a need to diet or CHANGE our bodies due to Christmas eating are bad news for everyone, not just young girls. I get it, New Year is a great time to assess, take stock, plan for the future rather than letting the months whittle by. I've started one. Eat less sugar, buy less stuff, make better choices. Sorted. After all, its seems to me that what the world really needs is LESS consuming in general, including clothes (£30 billion people!) If you're going to do it, then market sports and being active for everyone, and make a range of options available all year round - similar to Next who have just plonked all their sportswear on one page, job done. Should girls be included in a "weight loss craze" as Ana states above? Obviously no. Children should be protected from marketing campaigns that have the potential for harm - but how do we detect and measure potential harm? Here's a simple rule: If its not ok for boys, then its not ok for girls (and vice versa) - so in this case, why have boys been left out of this campaign? What's wrong with 2 year old boys wearing crop tops? Do boys not need to slim down after Christmas? If you can see a problem there, then there's a problem for girls too. We know that as a society, we are image obsessed and face some serious challenges - not simply how we are judged, but also how we judge ourselves. Here's a quote a find particularly pertinent when I think about my own girls.

“If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that's all that you really are. Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind: Your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage." Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

Responsible retailing isn't a given, it needs constantly checking and auditing - and its something that for the sake of our kids well being, we should all be demanding.

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Customer services: 0333 0044444 or email

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