4 stars,  non-fiction,  running

Review: ‘Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives’ by Anna Kessel

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sport’s for everyone . . . isn’t it?

Society has led us to believe that women and sport don’t mix. But why? What happens to the young girls who dare to climb trees and cartwheel across playgrounds?

In her exploration of major taboos, from sex to the gender pay gap, sports journalist Anna Kessel discovers how sport and exercise should play an integral role in every sphere of our modern lives.

Covering a fascinating range of women, from Sporty Spice to mums who box and breastfeed, Eat Sweat Play reveals how women are finally reclaiming sport, and by extension their own bodies, for themselves – and how you can too.

I’ve had a bit of a mixed relationship with sport over the years. I wasn’t a super sporty child and I hated PE lessons at school. Be it cross country running around a field in gym knickers in the freezing cold in winter or being forced to attempt high jump while 30 of your peers look on, there was nothing about it that inclined me towards engaging. Fast forward a few years and I love to exercise. I actually enjoy exercise, and that is something that 14 year old me would never have imagined saying. I imagine that anybody who ever tried to teach me a sport would imagine it even less. What’s unnerving is how accurately Kessel writes about women just like me, women who aren’t “just not sporty” but who aren’t engaged in fitness and activity in the right way early in life.

…if you fail a woman at any stage of her doing sport or do exercise, she’ll rarely have the confidence to go back and try again

Maybe sport is different for young people now but would it have killed the PE teachers of my youth to let us teenage girls know that sport isn’t all hand-eye coordination, public embarrassment or being the biggest, fastest or strongest? Lining up groups of young people and having others pick their favourites for teams is awful for most; lining up groups of young people for a bit of zumba is fun. Teaching girls about calories and exercise is valuable of course but perhaps less valuable than engendering in women a love of being active, of not caring how you look and just having fun. I personally hate playing team sports and I hate anything competitive (the pressure!). I do, however, love running by myself, listening to music and feeling like I could do anything. I love challenging myself at progressively harder gym classes because they clear my head like nothing else. Like Kessel, I’m convinced now more than ever that PE lessons at school should be about helping everybody find something that they enjoy and giving them time to do it. She’s a wonderfully relatable writer and her chatty tone is perfect for this type of book because it stops it sounding preachy.

There were sections of Eat Sweat Play that were less relevant to me personally, dealing with sport during pregnancy and getting back into exercise when you have a young child for example, but even those were engaging and there were some really interesting points about what we’re taught to think about the female body that maybe I’ll revisit in the future when they are more relevant. If I have a gripe, it’s that the writing started to feel a little repetitive towards the end. There are so many examples of women who have braved events they were banned from just to prove that women could do what men could or women who are continuing to defy social conventions to fight for girls’ rights to just run and they’re fabulous to read about but in the end, they’re included to illustrate the same point. It’s a point that I wholeheartedly agree with but the same one nonetheless. I found that not trying to read it cover to cover helped. It took me four months to read Eat Sweat Play but that way meant that I could really enjoy it.

Whenever I picked up Eat Sweat Play, it made me want to get out and do something active. It’s inspiring and I genuinely think that women who think they hate exercise could read this and be motivated to try something that they’ve always wanted to give a go but haven’t for whatever reason. I felt like such a wally the first time I went for a run out in public but having done it anyway and survived gives me confidence in myself that I carry into classes that I’ve never tried before, to just say to an instructor “I’ve never done this before” and trust them not to laugh me out of the room. Kessel acknowledges that modern women are short of time or labouring under a feeling that they must always look presentable and isn’t at all patronising or trying to make you feel guilty if you don’t fancy exercise all of the time. She’s just trying to empower those who do want to give something a try, be that learning to run, box or just do a forward roll, and I love her for it.

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’s 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?“

Overall:  The older I get, the more I find myself identifying as a feminist. Eat Sweat Play is such a timely book, released at a time when I do really feel as though there’s a shift in the way women see themselves. Kessel acknowledges that it’s ok to actually like make-up and wearing dresses and that doing that doesn’t make you any less of a feminist; it’s about choice. She has written a book that absolutely sums up how I feel about so many things and I adored it.

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Pictured edition published by Pan Macmillan in July 2017

Date finished: 15 March 2018

Source: Bought

Read with: Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley