Puberty and Sports: Changing the Narrative with Gen Z

Trends / Realness
Rifka Hayati
Sandra Michalska
Aug 19, 2021
The Olympic Games have always produced iconic photography capturing stories that go down in sports history. This year, one of those inspiring iconic moments came on day three of the Tokyo Games, with skateboarders Momiji Nishiya of Japan, Rayssa Leal of Brasil and Funa Nakayama of Japan, aged 13, standing proudly on the podium. Teenage girls took the Olympics by storm, and as Gen Z is becoming a primary focus for sports leagues, teams and sponsors, it’s time to build your visual strategy by understanding their language.

The new wave of teen Gen Z athletes is changing communication around sports by using social media platforms to inspire girls all over the world to participate in sports—from behind‑the‑scenes TikTok clips to influencers like bronze‑medalist Sky Brown, who has 1.3 million Instagram followers. Born and raised at the cusp of the social media boom, Gen Z modernized the Games by demystifying the image of an Olympian as a superhuman, and communicating a more rounded and honest view of what it means to be a professional athlete. With the widely discussed Simone Biles withdrawal, or German gymnasts taking on sexualisation in sport, the time has come for more accurate and authentic portrayals of what it’s like to be a female or female identifying individual in the world of sport today. This opens up an opportunity for brands to address one of the main reasons for not becoming one—the unseen struggles of puberty.
There is still much to be done to improve girls and young adults’ participation in sports, which is often stopped by low self‑esteem and body image. When girls and young adults see empowering images of younger female athletes, they are more likely to be inspired to participate in sport. This impact is something brands and sports rights holders can harness ‑ using the power of sports visuals ‑ to break stereotypes and pre‑existing taboos. Getty Images' Visual GPS ongoing research reveals that Gen Z females are most likely to experience bias concerning body shape, type or size.
From period shame, period poverty, breast pain or body‑baring uniforms ‑ the unseen struggles of girls and young women result in lower sports participation in adult life. Getty Images' Visual GPS research confirms that while nearly 9 in 10 women try to take care of themselves physically, only 4 in 10 take regular action (such as exercising, playing sports or running).  An inclusive visual language that does not overlook female physiology, different body sizes and shapes, period struggles or sexual orientation will help girls feel comfortable in their skin and keep them in the game. Brands, with all their cultural and social influence, can help to create space for this conversation.

Our recent Visual GPS research revealed that 7 in 10 Gen Z females prefer to buy from brands that show a lifestyle like theirs in advertising and communications. Selecting inclusive, relatable visuals that breaks social taboos is not only about building brand engagement and loyalty, but also about building a more compassionate, inclusive and healthier society for life‑long female participation in sport.
Actionable Tips:

Choose inclusive sport visuals
Being a teenager is complex, and too many girls develop negative attitudes labelling themselves as ‘not sporty’ or avoiding looking ‘overly muscular.’ Only inclusive and authentic representations will help them build their self‑acceptance. Select visuals that represent different intersecting identity factors for this age group ‑ body types and sizes, ethnicity, ability, sexual orientation, socio‑economic backgrounds etc.

Challenge stigmas and taboos

Normalise the emotional and physical challenges of puberty. Consider what makes girls comfortable and show scenarios where they get support from coaches, family or teammates.  

Make sports fun
Make sure to choose visuals showing the uniting power of sport ‑ from moments of friendship and teamwork to fulfilling enjoyment while participating. Consider scenarios without competitive pressure, for instance, playing football with family or spending time with friends playing basketball.
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