“ 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 slam someone on a rugby pitch, or learn how to throw a real punch.“
I first heard about Anna Kessel’s book about women and sport, Eat Sweat Play on Twitter from the Women’s Sports Trust Be A Gamechanger Awards. I had voted for a friend, Alex Rotas, nominated for her outstanding photography of Masters Athletes and I was keen to follow her success on the evening. Anna’s publishers, Macmillan, had given copies to the guests and my interest was immediately piqued as photos were being retweeted.
By the time I bought my own copy in June, I had read Anna’s article 5 Reasons You Need to Embrace Sport (Even if You Hated PE) in Glamour and her Guardian article on sport and building a positive body image. I had also learned she had been awarded an MBE for her services to journalism and women’s sport.
My expectations in terms of her knowledge were high to say the least.
What I had not expected however, was how incredibly engaging her style of writing would be. It is very much like listening to a friend who has done a vast amount of research, talked to all the people you would hope she would and asked all the questions you would want (& many you hadn’t thought of).
Her passion for how positively sport can transform the lives of women and girls shines through and yet she is never patronising, preachy or prescriptive.
It’s about joy, friendship, confidence and skill.
“Maybe exercise and sport can be something we do for ourselves. For fun! For happiness! For clear thinking! Because physical activity should be something integral to our being alive. And it is the essential part that really concerns us here, not the bit about how many millimetres it might shave off your inside thigh measurement.“
I also had not expected how honestly Anna would share her own story with sport. For some reason, I had assumed that as a sports journalist and Chair of Women in Football, she would enthuse how much she had loved playing for the county at school and how she regularly breezed through at least a 10km run by 7am before sitting down to write.
When she explained in the Introduction that she gets nervous walking past a game of football in case she has to kick the ball back, and fail spectacularly, I felt a sense of relief.
When she shared a few pages later that she too had cried when she watched Sport England’s This Girl Can’s advert for the first time, I did a little dance.
About 120 pages further, recounting her interview with Sport England’s CEO Jennie Price, a women in her fifties like myself, Anna brought me to tears. Happy tears, but tears nevertheless!
As she shared details of her miscarriage, I had to go for a walk. My first miscarriage was over 17 years ago. However, her description was so relatable, the memories returned and I needed some fresh air to catch my breath.
“It ain’t about the ass, it’s about the brain.” Lena Dunham, Golden Globe award-winning writer, director and star of the hit US TV series Girls on running
And that, for me, is where the strength of Eat Sweat Play lies, Anna Kessel’s willingness to address issues rarely discussed with compassion and understanding, backed up by excellent research.
From the personal to the political, the cultural to the religious, we are on a journey of discovery and discussion. Anna talks about periods, pregnancy and post pregnancy, miscarriage, the menopause, body image. She looks at ways sport can help with anxiety and depression, from the perspective of professional athletes and people like you and me.
We hear stories of professional women working within the industry, coaches, investors, teachers, sponsors, advocates, journalists, commentators, presenters and the families of sporting stars.
She highlights how having a physical disability can so often mean exclusion from sport at all levels.
The inclusion of so many voices and perspectives is inspiring and exciting.
I don’t know of another book quite like it.
“With sport, you are simply, wonderfully, in the moment.“
One area I had not expected Anna to cover in much detail was sport for women over 50, like the wonderful women whose fabulous stories I celebrate on my blog HealthyHappy50.com.
It is often said that middle aged women become invisible in society. This is never truer than within sports and fitness.
We are out there swimming, running, cycling, rowing, dancing, climbing, walking, playing golf, hockey and netball, but you would be hard pressed to know that if you looked at mainstream or social media.
How many times have you seen women over 50 featured in health and fitness magazines?
How regularly do you read articles about those of us in our 50s enjoying sport, looking a bit sweaty or muddy, in the women’s-interest magazines aimed at our age group?
To date, the This Girl Can campaign, which I love, has been focussed on women aged 14 – to their early 40s. One exception of course was swimmer Val Smith who was 51 when she took part in the advert.
Thankfully things are changing. Lorraine Kelly and Fern Britton, both in their 50s, are sharing how much they enjoy dance/aerobics and cycling. Only this week I saw Carol Kirkwood speaking about her Couch to 5K challenge with BBC Get Inspired . Her joy was palpable.
And of course, Michelle Obama is a great advocate for how beneficial and fun exercise can be.
In general, however, we are simply missing from the conversation about sport & exercise.
When I tell people my blog champions women in their 50s who enjoy sport their usual response is a blank stare. It is as if it is the most ludicrously niche topic to focus on. They even ask if anyone is interested!
Of course, the women I write about know differently. From my experience, they embody what Anna calls the “smart ones (who) will have latched on to something far more valuable. That sport and exercise is fun.”
That said, I genuinely had no expectation that women like us would be part of Anna’s book.
But Eat Sweat Play is different.
Describing the aerobics classes she went to in her twenties, Anna talks about how the older women inspired her. They “laughed the most, came with their friends (and) worked the hardest” she remembers. “Why are women waiting for their autumn years to have this eureka moments? Why can’t younger women find the same enjoyment?” she asks.
Whilst I like to think I’m “late July/early August” rather than in my “autumn” years, I was thrilled that she grasped what sport means to those of us in our 50s and beyond.
As someone who fell back in love with exercise in in her late forties, I was brought to tears reading her interview with Sport England CEO Jennie Price. I won’t spoil it for you, do read it for yourself. For me however, it was one of the most moving and positive interviews.
“Sport and exercise in its most basic form shouldn’t be rocket science. It should just be fun, the fundamental movement of a person’s body from A to B, with a giggle and a breathless cackle at C.“
As I read the book, I found myself feeling inspired, hopeful, angry, stunned, disappointed, intrigued, saddened, amazed, overjoyed, frustrated. With each chapter I learned so much, often about things that simply had not crossed my mind.
Many of the people Anna refers to such as Judy Murray, Tanni Grey-Thompson and Clare Balding I followed on social media already. Others like Jacqui Oatley, Shelley Alexander & the I Will If You Will initiative in Bury I have started following since, immediately enriching my day.
There were personal “aha moments” too.
Times where I recognised myself in others’ stories, where I realised that it wasn’t just me that felt that way about exercise.
Eat Sweat Play helped me further understand that, having been the little girl who flung herself into the sea and did cartwheels along the beach, losing confidence in my ability and my place in the world of sport was neither entirely my own personal failing (as I had always believed) nor was it unique to me.
School PE lessons, culture and societal values had all played a part in robbing many of my generation of the joy and confidence we felt about sport as young girls. We had learned the lessons that we could only be either sporty or academic, and that we had to look, move and think a certain way as we became teenagers and then adults.
It took me 30 years, my Mum’s death, a million metres and a marathon on an indoor rowing machine to help me rediscover the joy I had felt as a young girl on my Chopper or drift diving in Scotland in my 20s.
Reading Anna’s book feels like another step on the journey to reclaiming sport, on my terms, for my health and happiness. My wish is that it will do the same for you, whatever your age and however much you don’t feel sport/exercise/fitness is for you.
“Playing sport makes you feel free. It makes you feel like you can achieve anything.“ Sarab Hassan, Spirit of Soccer, northern Iraq
Eat Sweat Play reveals such interesting stories about the history of women and sport and brings us up to date with where we are at present.
Most importantly, Anna sets out a vision where girls and women have “the right to move their bodies freely and playfully, free from inhibition, judgement and oppression. In any way they want to.”
I feel genuinely hopeful and encouraged that with the combined energy of all the talented and committed women and men whose work she shares in her book, that this vision will become a reality.
A joyful and inspiring reality. I’m so excited for the journey ahead.
PS I’ve just read that Sport England has made a further commitment to the This Girl Can campaign until 2020. I could not be happier.
Disclosure: I bought Eat Sweat Play with my own money. I don’t know Anna nor her publishers, Macmillan. They had no idea I was writing this review.
I simply felt so inspired that I wanted to share my thoughts and they were too long for a 140 character Tweet or Instagram post!
I really recommend you buy the book. It’s available from all good bookshops etc RRP £12.99.
I’d love to know what you think of it – please do let me know.
Leave a comment here, or Tweet me at @healthyhappy50 or Instagram @healthyhappy50. Or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you! Enjoy! Jo x