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'The majority of the female population doesn’t engage in sport... Why is that?'

In an extract from ‘Eat Sweat Play,’ Anna Kessel looks at how sport can change our lives.

The sleeve for Anna Kessel's acclaimed book Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives.
The sleeve for Anna Kessel's acclaimed book Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives.

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives by Anna Kessel.

I didn’t think I could write a book about women and sport. I don’t play sport, I bunked PE my whole school life, and if a ball comes anywhere near my face I blink. I get nervous walking past a game of football in case I have to kick the ball back to someone, and spectacularly fail. Which is kind of a career hazard considering I’ve been a sports journalist for the last twelve years.

So when the idea was first suggested to me I said no. Short of a chronic case of impostor syndrome, I couldn’t imagine preaching to a converted audience of hardcore sports lovers.

What would be the point? These women are already out there doing their thing. The issue is that there are all too few of them. The majority of the female population doesn’t engage in sport, either playing it, or watching it. Why is that?

The more I thought about it, the more I thought about the contradictions. Most of my female friends don’t call themselves sports fans, but they get excited about watching Wimbledon, or the World Cup or the Olympics. They might not exercise regularly, but they’ve probably done a 10km, or played badminton or table tennis. They just didn’t necessarily like PE, or can’t remember who won the FA Cup.

And the women who are crazy about sport aren’t getting an easy time of it because society casually dubs them unfeminine, or rubbish at it, or lesser sports fans than men. So that as women, whether we love sport or loathe it, we are constantly being defined as incompatible with it. Alien. Odd. Other.

For men, sport and exercise are all part of the same active spectrum, but for women they are presented as two very distinct things. Exercise, with its approved end-goal of delivering you a better body, is revered for twenty-first-century women.

From the launch of Net-A-Sporter, serving up sports clothing for fashionistas, to the introduction of #plankie and #fitspo for the Instagram generation, exercise for women has gone mainstream.

Where once celebrities were forced to sneak out of the back door of a gym, red-faced, now the likes of Victoria Beckham and Ellie Goulding proudly head out on four-mile runs or for boxing sessions in the park. What was formerly known as the ‘sweat patch of shame’ is now triumphantly circled in gossip magazines, a mark to be revered.

But sport for women is seen as distinct from all this activity. Sweating from sporting exertion is not seen as beautiful. Its raison d’être strays too far from appearance. And that’s precisely why sport is so important for women.

It’s a rare moment in our lives, when the emphasis is on playing, being in the now. It’s also about determination and grit, not losing a few pounds or looking great, but absolutely wiping the floor with your opponents.

It’s about winning, showing aggression, being competitive, openly rejoicing and being proud in doing all of these things. It’s also about fun. And, when we really think hard about it, women are not encouraged to have fun very often. Unless you buy into advertising-speak about tampons, curling your hair and shopping for a kitchen.

So why is sport consistently defined as male territory? Who decides that TV cameras, replicating the male gaze, should habitually seek out the most beautiful women in the crowd? When will women ever flock to watch football, rugby and boxing in their millions?

Or turn up to the park with friends for a Sunday morning kickabout? How long do we have to wait to see the first multimillionaire female footballer or basketball player? And what is it really like to be an elite female athlete?

Never mind training regimes, what happens if you reach the Wimbledon final and you’re on your period? In fact, what even is the deal with exercise and periods? Has anyone researched this stuff? Who are the scientists looking at how boobs respond to exercise, whether female orgasms help or hinder women from winning trophies, and whether you can run off your PMT?

Have we even figured out what to call our bodies? When I had to decide on a word for vagina to tell my daughter, I was horrified to discover that other mums were proposing a range of bizarre and confusing terms including moomoo, nunnie, front bottom, bits, flower and twinkle. No wonder grown women — and men — still struggle with how to speak about the female anatomy.

The absence of answers to so many of these questions says it all. Let’s face it, society still just isn’t that comfortable with real women’s bodies, particularly not the sporty and female ones.

Jessica Ennis-Hill File Photo Jessica Ennis-Hill. Source: David Davies

While we idolise British heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, an Olympic goddess with a six-pack is sadly still not viewed as a role model for many women and young girls. And that is because women are still being sold the myth that sport compromises your femininity (unless you’re doing it in your knickers, Lingerie Football League). Because, as society keeps telling us, women are married to sports stars – not sports stars in their own right.

Hallelujah, then, that slowly – ever so slowly – a change has come upon us. From Michelle Obama slam-dunking LeBron James at the White House and opening the conversation about physical activity, to baseball’s overnight household name Mo’ne Davis who kicked ass in 2014, beating the boys in the Little League World Series, England’s women’s rugby team winning the World Cup (forcing some of the most conservative sports editors in Fleet Street to put their photo on the front page), England’s women footballers winning over a nation, and the steady trickle of women’s-interest magazines finally beginning to treat sport as a serious topic to engage their readers.

Still, on pitching this book to publishers I worried that they wouldn’t get it. The whole premise of the idea seemed impossibly contradictory: I wanted to appeal to women who didn’t connect to sport, who didn’t buy sports books, and I wanted to do it with a book about sport. The words of the Cosmo Body editor who said her readers were ‘scared’ of the word sport rang loud in my ears. Surely, this project was flawed.

England Women's Football team reception at Downing Street Prime Minister David Cameron meets members of the England Women's Football team at 10 Downing Street. Source: Dan Kitwood

Amazingly, Macmillan didn’t think so. And their leap of faith paid off as Sport England’s massive ‘This Girl Can’ campaign launched in January 2015, speaking to exactly that disenfranchised audience of women that I wanted to reach. When I first watched that advert, Missy Elliott’s ‘Get Ur Freak On’ blaring over a powerful series of moving images, I cried. Because the film showed a realness that is scarily absent from our everyday consumption of female imagery.

We saw a range of body types, ethnicities, ages, activities. Best of all, we saw them sweating, smiling, out of breath, with messed-up hair, not concerned about how they looked. We saw them in what would normally be described as varying states of imperfection, and yet here they were enjoying themselves.

I know not everyone loves the campaign; some critics feel it is not diverse enough, or that ‘girl’ is an inappropriate term for ‘female’. I do not dismiss their concerns, but for me the campaign was a revelation. And best of all, it was cool, not patronising. Gone were the preachy messages about health and well-being. This Girl Can was about fun and friendship. The fact that they’d chosen Missy to deliver the soundtrack said it all. Missy Elliott, a powerful and all-too-rare female figure in a music industry consumed by misogyny.

For my generation of women Missy is all about embracing body image (‘Love my guts, so fuck a tummy tuck’), supporting other female artists and female empowerment. She raps about cunnilingus and turning herself on, and in her videos she celebrates the female body without objectifying or denigrating it. And, mostly, she does it all in a tracksuit.

People Dunham Coates Girls creator Lena Dunham (file pic). Source: Jordan Strauss

Cue Lena Dunham, Golden Globe award-winning writer, director and star of the hit US TV series Girls, who recently noted that ‘It ain’t about the ass, it’s about the brain.’ It’s got to be the slogan for women and girls in the 21st century. Lena was talking about running, which she says helped her tackle anxiety in a way that sixteen years of medication never managed to.

But she doesn’t equate exercise with losing weight, or being healthy, or any of that boring, polarised, feel-bad stuff. Instead she talks about the revelation of being able to run down the street when you’re late, actually using your body for its original intended purpose.

There is a realness about Lena that is absent from the mainstream media. She doesn’t buy into the bullshit line about all larger women being curvy. She says she has a big body with small breasts and an arse that wouldn’t be serenaded in music videos. It’s a body shape that we don’t acknowledge or celebrate in our culture. And yet it is one that we see every day in the women around us, in ourselves.

She rails against women’s bodies being politicized and ‘policed’. ‘We can no longer keep women from owning property. We can no longer keep women from voting. But we will find a way to police and repress powerful women and let them know that they do not matter to us and that they are not in control of their own destiny.

And then women join in because that’s what they’re being taught from the time they’re born. They don’t even recognise that they’re agents of their own oppression. Not to sound too much like I’m, like, Andrea Dworkin-ing out on you . . .’

This book, too, is about challenging the status quo. Society’s stereotypes tell us that women don’t like sport, but when we really think about it that doesn’t make any sense. Isn’t the fundamental principle of being physically active something that comes naturally to us from the moment we begin to walk?

Don’t we all remember our childhoods, running down a hill so fast it made us laugh until we couldn’t breathe? Daring ourselves to climb a tree, to do our first cartwheel, our first handstand? What happened to us? When did we change? When did we lose our sense of fun, our sense of play? Sport is just playing, after all. And exercise is just moving our bodies, not hard penance.

Why does any of this matter? Because, as Nelson Mandela famously put it, ‘Sport has the power to change the world.’ In some cases, quite literally. Around the globe, projects involving sport are changing women’s lives right now.

Whether that’s teaching women in southern India to swim – following the Asian tsunami of 2004 in which up to four times as many women died as men – or using sport as the vehicle for change by encouraging female leadership skills, raising awareness of HIV/AIDS, offering alternative pathways to prostitution and tackling domestic violence.

Why sport? Because it teaches women to take ownership of their bodies, it gives them physical strength, and it gifts them status and new-found respect in cultures where sport is seen as an activity solely for men.

It’s time for women the world over to reconnect with our bodies. To reclaim them from a life of obsessing about thigh gaps and bingo wings. To remember that our bodies are there to have fun with, to enjoy.

And to make sure that we learn these lessons before it is too late, before we are physically infirm and looking back over our lives wishing we’d tried wild swimming, or netball, or trampolining, wondering what it might have been like to body slam someone on a rugby pitch, or learn how to throw a real punch. What are we waiting for?

Mary Berry book signing British food writer Mary Berry (file pic). Source: PA Archive/PA Images

The daring amongst us, the heroes and rebels, have been bucking the trend and enjoying sport for millennia. From the women of Ancient Greece running barefoot races and medieval nuns playing cricket, to the Tudor women who watched tennis and loved a round of golf. In our own era some of the highest-profile women in the world have fallen in love with sport – from Rihanna to J. K. Rowling and Mary Berry.

This book is about encouraging women and girls to reclaim sport on their own terms. It is not a lecture about health, but rather an invitation to discover the fun and fulfilment in physical activity, and everything that it brings — from better emotional stability to better relationships.

It’s not about telling women who to be, or what to do; Lord knows we have enough of that in our lives already. And it’s not about having a go at men, many of whom would heartily welcome a new de-gendered approach to sport and exercise.

But it is about urging us to rethink the spaces that we close off from ourselves. One of the most profound interviews I conducted for this book was with a mother of two children who had taken up boxing, despite hating the sport, and found herself retraining as an archaeologist after years in a ‘sensible’ desk job.

Doing sport literally changed her life. Because, she reasoned, if she could work up the guts to punch someone she could actually do anything. In sport she found a space to escape the pressures and expectations placed upon us as women, from looking perfect to juggling careers and motherhood. Best of all, she found an activity that she fell in love with.

After all, whether we like it or not, sport is everywhere. In our school sports lessons, dominating our TV schedules (‘What? EastEnders is delayed again?’); it’s there in our relationships, in our workplace, in the conversations of the world’s biggest powerbrokers, and it’s there dictating our futures.

So why don’t we start owning it? Sport for women and girls is now understood to be so monumentally important and life-changing that even the United Nations have suggested it will play a leading role in the journey to equal rights for women and girls this century. First, though, we’ve got to get on the scoresheet.

Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives by Anna Kessel is published by Pan Macmillan. More info here.

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