I pull on my green bib.
I’m GS today – Goal Shooter, that is – and do a mini fist pump inside. A year ago, when I started netball again, I wanted to shoot but my skills didn’t match my ambition. I was too out of practise, and often delegated to a different position. But now? I know where I’m best.
Shouts of ‘Come on Greens!’ echo as we take the first centre pass. The clock ticks on 40 minutes and whether it’s a win or a loss, we leave that sports halls smiling, satisfied, and sweating.
The idea of us (women in particular) doing exercise for enjoyment, or participating in sport just for the fun of it, is a key part of Anna Kessel’s book ‘Eat Sweat Play’. I recently finished the book ahead of seeing Anna discuss it live at London Podcast Festival with Laura Thomas from Don’t Salt My Game, and it truly blew my mind. Upon reading the last words, I felt like I could cry. Never had something made me feel so liberated and excited about the potential of my body, the potential that extends so much further than just what it looks like and instead into the power of what it can do.
Anna is a sports journalist as well as the co-founder and chair of Women in Football, and ‘Eat Sweat Play’ is her debut novel, with the tagline ‘How sport can change our lives’. After reading the book and reflecting at my own sporting history, it turns out that I think it already has.
“Why can’t women and girls sweat and play just for fun or companionship, rather than punishment, or to achieve an aesthetic or weight loss goal?”
The core of Anna’s book is how society has led us to believe that women in sport don’t mix; the way young girls are put off sport from a really young age; how menstrual cycles and motherhood come to affect women’s participation in sport; and the battle women face to be seen as equals in the sporting world.
Interviewing incredible women including Olympians, champion sportswomen, fellow sports journalists, businesswomen and more, Anna paints a picture of a culture where, when it comes to physical exercise, women are restrained, talked down to, sold exercise based on nothing more than subjugation and diet culture, and where the sheer joy of movement has been taken away from us.
Why can’t women and girls sweat and play just for fun or companionship, rather than punishment or to achieve an aesthetic or weight loss goal? Why can’t professional sports take female athletes, coaches and supporters more seriously? Why can’t we make sport inclusive for all, to encourage all genders to improve their health through moving their bodies?
My relationship with exercise throughout my life has been so up and down.
As a plus size woman who has struggled with body image, self esteem and disordered eating for just about all my life, taking part in sport has often not come easily.
But, maybe surprisingly, my youth was probably the most engaged I’ve been in physical activity. Whilst during school and puberty can be a hard time for many young girls to feel included in sport, I was exercising very regularly and sometimes competitively until I was 16.
Anna talks in the book about how PE can be a traumatic experience for many, but despite being bigger than most of my friends and often struggling with shyness and my body, I didn’t find it too bad! I enjoyed a lot of different activities – long distance running, netball, hockey, rounders, cricket, and was on the school teams for a few of those throughout my education. Whilst PE wasn’t exactly a walk in the park (and I was by no means top of the class) it was always a fairly positive experience.
But the majority of my childhood was spent doing laps of the swimming pool. My grandparents took me swimming from a very young age and carried on buying me bathers, ferrying me to galas and taking me along to training 5 nights a week for years. Back then, I didn’t bat an eyelid at walking about in a bathing suit, getting changed each evening with my friends, and exposing so much of my body to take part in a sport that I was only distinctly average at. Whereas some of my friends (who often fit the thin ideal much more closely than I) would shrink away at being seen in a swimsuit, it didn’t bother me in the slightest. I felt good in my bigger frame. Proud of my long strong legs and muscular arms – a boy in school even complimented me on them once, and it felt like the best thing in the world. I didn’t mind too much what my body looked like, because I was so used to measuring it by what it was capable of.
“I didn’t mind too much what my body looked like, because I was so used to measuring it by what it was capable of.”
Inevitably, the time came (as it does for so many) where my priorities changed. College and university came around, and my interest in sport waned to a point of non-existence. My eating disorder really strongly developed in this time and my self-esteem issues worsened and I really started to get locked in my head rather than feeling the power of my body. I forgot about my sporting passions and exercise became something I only did as a method of reaching a calorie goal or compensating for what I deemed to be ‘bad’ food choices.
Fast forward a few years and I’m sitting in a restaurant with my best friend.
‘I’m starting netball, Soph’, she says, pushing pasta around her plate.
I’m instantly fascinated – netball is something I always enjoyed in school and my complex relationship with my body and mind is crying out for a new way to get moving.
She had joined a netball team via a company called Go Mammoth. Go Mammoth provide recreational team sports leagues and exercise classes, and their mission is to free us from our tech-centric lives, inject a little more fun into our week, and use sport to create a social experience for people, to build a community. This of course applies to all genders, but doesn’t it also sound exactly like what Anna Kessel was hoping for?
I cannot get enough of netball. Playing it, talking about it, watching it. I will play as a sub for any game I can manage, and never missed a match of either the UK or New Zealand professional leagues during the season. It’s hard to pinpoint the thing I love most about it – the insane abilities of the pros and watching women at the absolute top of their athletic game play for something so fiercely; the sense of team spirit and the genuine friends I’ve made; or maybe how it’s an outlet for the inner competitiveness I’ve secretly harboured all my life. Plus – I’m actually pretty good at it too. Winky face.
When I’m playing netball, I’m not really thinking about my hair, or the fact I don’t have makeup on, or how my belly and boobs are jiggling about. I’m thinking about marking my player, about taking the next shot, about the best choice of pass. It’s completely liberating. I sleep better and feel that good kind of ache in the morning, and I can’t get enough.
Whilst netball is a sporting passion that I continue to nurture every week, back in 2016 I completed the biggest physical challenge that I’ve ever set myself.
I first signed up for a 10k the year before, after a coaching session with my good friend Alice Allum. I’d opened up about my binge eating and decided the best way to motivate myself to get in shape was to book on to do something big that would force me to train for it, and the Salford 10k run seemed like the perfect opportunity. The atmosphere and adrenaline of completing that run was a total buzz – so much so that the following year, I challenged myself to complete five 10k runs throughout 2016 in order to raise money for national eating disorder charity B-eat.
For someone who’d only ever ran a full 10k once in her life and was also pretty overweight (and pretty unfit), five 10ks was quite a mountain to climb! What followed was an extremely challenging six months, mentally and physically. My depression and eating disorder really had a tight grasp on me, and so I found it difficult to train regularly. I’d approach some of the race days in a total panic, overwhelmed and anxious at the thought of what I had to do, and sometimes had to walk a lot of the distance just to get over the finish line. Other times, I was in a positive mindset, had really prepared my mind for what it was about to go through, and found myself beating my personal best time and feeling better than ever.
You can read in full what I learned from completing five 10k runs in six months on this blog post. Whilst I’d be reluctant to sign up for something that big again, I still love running, and after raising over £500 for my chosen charity, it helped me to see sport as a way to push myself, as therapy for my mind, and a way to do good in the world too.
“Our bodies are meant to move, our lungs are meant to pant, our limbs ache and stretch and our hearts beat – and I’ve decided that whilst mine still is, I’m going to make the most of it.”
My relationship with my body has been extremely fraught, tumultuous and at times, heartbreaking. I’ve grown up hating myself and am only just realising that I have no reason to do so. The more my mental health has deteriorated, the more trapped inside my own head I have felt, and moving my body has often been the way to find some kind of relief from that, even for a short time. Our bodies are meant to move, our lungs are meant to pant, our limbs ache and stretch and our hearts beat – and I’ve decided that whilst mine still is, I’m going to make the most of it.
So what do we do now? How do we find joy in sport again, and support other women in their pursuit of it too?
Aside from netball, I’m thinking of taking up a new kind of exercise. I love to run, but feel like team sports really help me to feel more engaged in my movement as well as make me more accountable to it. At London Podcast Festival, Anna mentioned rowing (which I’ve always thought I might be rather good at!), basketball could be an interesting transfer of my netball skills, and I got a taste of archery for a birthday present last year which I think I’d like to have another go at.
Bums on seats at live women’s sport is also a major factor in helping it be taken more seriously by clubs, funding and broadcast media alike, so I’m going to make a concerted effort to watch more professional women at the top of the game where I can. A friend and I have already vowed to attend all the Manchester Thunder netball matches we can at the start of the new season, and even debated taking a week off work to attend the Netball World Cup in Liverpool in 2019!
I’d love to hear your sports story – how do you find joy in moving your body? What impact has sport had in your life? And have you read ‘Eat Sweat Play’?
Women are continuing to wake up to the oppression forced upon us every day – body positivity, feminism, and fat acceptance are just some of the movements fighting back against inequality. It’s time for us to reclaim our bodies, and reclaim our use of them too. It’s time for us to embrace sport as our own.
Useful Links For You….
The website of Laura Thomas PhD and her podcast, ‘Don’t Salt My Game’