I wouldn’t call myself a sporty person. I hated PE growing up (first thing on a Monday morning!!). Shivering on a muddy field in the freezing temperatures of northern England. The boys in their long sleeved rugby tops, us girls in short skirts and navy knickers (so archaic it’s ridiculous). The only options in winter were netball and hockey, two sports I loathed. Nothing about my physical education made me want to exercise. It wasn’t fun. It felt like a punishment.
So I was as surprised as anyone when I started playing a team sport aged 29. I found roller derby, and it changed everything. My social life exploded. I met so many brilliant people – people I would never have met otherwise – and I fell in love with exercise. Even though it hurt – bruises, pulled muscles, ingrowing toenails requiring surgery – derby never felt like a punishment. I was in love. And it changed how I felt about my body. I didn’t want to be thin anymore, I wanted to be strong.
All of this is to say I am the prime audience for this book, and I enjoyed it immensely. Anna Kessel is a sports journalist examining women’s involvement in sport, how we’re made to feel like the aim of exercise is to get the perfect body, rather than for us to enjoy ourselves, and how we’re pushed aside in favour of men’s sport and suffer from lack of funding across the board.
There are sections on the dreaded PE and how schools are failing girls – writing them off before they’ve even begun; how we’re made to feel like sport isn’t for girls because it’s sweaty and unglamorous and how lovely and surprising it was to see girls and women exerting themselves on TV for the This Girl Can campaign. I especially enjoyed the Sports and Taboos section, covering everything from periods, sex, miscarriage and the menopause. There’s also the lack of research about the female body and how exercise affects it, or how its hormones etc affect exercise. ‘Men’s bodies being substituted for women’s bodies in sports research is about as unscientific as you can get’, which reminds me of all the ways women are done a disservice in medicine. Kessel addresses the fact that women are much more likely to be fobbed off when they say they have pain, or made to wait longer than men for pain relief.
An example is Serena Williams, who suffers from menstrual migraines. Doctors basically told her it was in her head. She played, with migraines, in beating hot sun. I suffer from migraines (and was told by my doctor they had no connection to my menstrual cycle too) and I cannot imagine playing tennis with one. All I want to do is crawl into bed in a dark room and sleep until it is over. She’s phenomenal. And yet we’re supposedly the weaker sex.
There’s much more, and I don’t feel like I’m doing it justice, but if you’re into sport and feminism this will probably appeal. It is quite UK-centric and since I’m about the same age as the author and we both grew up in the UK I do know her references. There’s also a section on female football commentary that I didn’t enjoy as much. But overall it is full of interesting personal stories from women and infuriating facts about the world of sport and how it treats them.
I don’t play derby any more. My love for it waned towards the end and a league change due to moving countries put an end to it completely. I consider going back sometimes, but with two babies I can’t risk a broken ankle or dislocated shoulder. But I miss it. The sweat, the bruises, the people…the exhilaration. Mostly I miss my love for it. The way it took over everything. How it made me feel. I’m hoping I find that in another sport someday. I’d like other women to have that too.