Last week I was babysitting two young boys and they couldn't agree on a film to watch. So instead I turned on Wimbledon while Serena Williams was playing. At four and six years old, the boys had never watched female tennis before. They couldn't believe how strong Williams was. They were in awe of the way the impact of her hitting the ball echoed round the court. It was a pleasure to teach the boys about her as their previous sporting role models were entirely male footballers and rugby players. It served as a reminder that our default is to celebrate and broadcast male sport.
A week later Williams falls to the floor as she wins her 22nd grand slam, then goes on in the same day to win doubles with her sister Venus. Their joy is contagious. Serena has repeatedly been referred to as unfeminine, as animalistic in her muscularity. The power and determination exuded in her strength are traits we should actively encourage in young girls, but the media's obsession with looks gets in the way. I believe her sweat and grit are beautiful in their own right, never mind her stunning body and enormous smile. Life is about so much more than fitting traditional beauty ideals. Williams, whose beauty is undoubtedly equal to her strength, is a wonderful role model for young girls and boys.
It is partly Williams' embrace of the sweat and reality of the hard work put into her sport that makes her so likeable. This is a trait shared by Sport England's recent project. The This Girl Can movement is one of the most inspiring, wide-spread pushes to encourage women to engage with sport. The campaign approaches sport in a 'warts and all' manner of acceptance. It doesn't shy away from the realities of hard workouts as photographs of women with sweat covered faces, gritted teeth and wobbling flesh shine under snappy phrases celebrating their effort such as "Hot and not bothered" or "I may be slow but I'm lapping everyone on the couch." It is a campaign for every woman at every stage of her relationship with sport. "It's a celebration of active women up and down the country," the This Girl Can campaign says, "who are doing their thing no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their face gets."
I play volleyball and have spent a few weekends this summer playing beach volleyball, where the women are typically portrayed by the media to be perfect, skinny, bikini-clad girls. In reality the best at beach are terrifyingly fierce. Yes, some are slim and yes, some wear bikinis, but their flesh still wobbles as they throw themselves at the sand, their faces grimace and their yells are guttural. It is a fascinating game to watch but it isn't exactly Playboy bunnies delicately jumping around court as we are often led to believe. The media's portrayal of female sport tends to be twisted in this way to take out the less photogenic elements, so This Girl Can is refreshing in its portrayal of women in sport. It shows us sweating and knackered and wobbling and slowing down and fighting against the pain. It shows us as human beings pushing ourselves, not as supermodels looking flawless as we work out. It shows the truth of sport, because it shows both the pain and the joy.
Sports journalist Anna Kessel's recently published book Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives is a passionate plea to women to pick up sport at any age, to men to encourage it, and to both genders to encourage a more active lifestyle in their children by giving them a positive example in themselves. She dissects particular examples of women in all areas of sport, from the athletes and fans to coaches and sports journalists themselves. Kessel questions every step of women in sport and tries to get some answers as to why there is so much gender inequality in sport, and what we can do about it. It should be required reading for every woman feeling dispassionate about sport or lacking confidence in their bodies.
Female bodies are often portrayed as an inconvenience, with Williams' nipples showing through her tight Nike top drawing more attention than her game play over the course of the tournament. Similarly we're told that young girls are distracting to schoolboys, as if that's our problem rather than theirs. Sport helps us build self confidence that society does so much to destroy. Hopefully in standing up to these criticisms rather than collapsing under the weight of them, we will see more stars like Williams, more campaigns like This Girl Can and more investigations like Eat Sweat Play.
May our bodies no longer be seen as an inconvenience, but as tools to show the rest of the world how powerful we are.