Women in sport. It’s as sticky a subject as your high school’s gymnasium floor. In a recent survey by BT Sport, 67% of London’s elite female athletes feared that the media and public valued their physical appearance over their athletic ability. Meanwhile, Sport England found that 75% of women questioned wanted to be involved in sport but were worried of being judged. These stats, combined with the sad truth that the number of women at top governing sporting bodies are as scarce as an England win at Euro 2016, tell us one thing about how far we have to go: it’s a marathon not a sprint.
Among the usual sporting bestsellers to capture the Union Jack-flying mood of sport this summer (you know, the ones with grizzled football managers on the cover) the bookish world is pulling up its sports socks by giving us a chance to explore the winning mentality of the fairer sex.
The question of how sport and exercise became so gendered is at the heart of Guardian sports journalist Anna Kessel’s new book Eat Sweat Play. “Sweating from sporting exertion is not seen as beautiful,” she writes. “Let’s face it, society still just isn’t that comfortable with real women’s bodies, particularly not the sporty and female ones. While we idolize 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-style).”
How much are Kessel’s realities found in the pages of our favourite books? Let’s face it, literary heroines are rarely sporty. Name a female protagonist that inspires you to land a drop shot like Djokovic or nutmeg like Messi and I’ll give you greater odds than those offered for Leicester City winning the Premier League title last season (5000/1, in case you didn’t know.)
If you can’t think beyond the tight ass on the front of Jilly Cooper’s Riders, you’re not alone. Using sport as a shortcut to sexual frolics is a common trope in women’s fiction, giving authors an excuse to get women’s kits off, not on. But, according to Lauren Weisberger whose new book The Singles Game follows top ranking female tennis player Charlie Silver, we shouldn’t dismiss it as a device to getting women engaged in sport. And while her novel is a world away from impossibly humid communal changing rooms and heavily chlorinated community swimming pools, Weisberger’s follow up to her Devil Wears Prada-shaped bestseller gets real on what it is to be a modern female sportsperson. “I think there’s much more pressure on women,” she insists, “because on top of how they perform most likely they have to give some consideration to their appearance, what they wear or how their hair is dressed, because they will be scrutinised.”
For Weisberger herself, writing the novel was an eye opener. “During my research I was going around lots of different tournaments, sitting in players’ lounges and halls and watching. From a lifestyle standpoint it’s definitely harder to be a female tennis player. If you consider that of the current top 10 elite male and female tennis players seven of the men are married but none of the women are. Additionally, four are fathers but none are mothers.”
While these two books sit in very different genre camps, they both dive into the wider conversation about women’s attitudes to sport, from #fitspo filters and ‘acceptable’ feminine activities like yoga and Zumba, to failures to instill the winning spirit from the school playground.
So how do we help women overcome the idea that sport can be about enjoyment and competing not just shrinking your bingo wings? According to Kessel change is in the air. Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign got many of us punching the air with glee while Glamour magazine launched its own drive, Say No To Sexism In Sport. “I’m not talking diets, boot camps, or even joining a sports club,” Kessel concludes. “I’m talking about sustainable, incremental change. Change that is do-able, change that makes us feel good – not overwhelmed with extra pressures to adopt a new lifestyle.”