Many women will begin 2018 finding their relationship between exercise and their bodies is still more complicated than it needs to be. Type ‘new year, new me’ into Google and the first result is a nine-week weight loss plan. In itself, this is neither surprising nor a bad thing. But what is the intended end-point? Why the preoccupation with calories over movement, weight over health, looks over fitness? If the New Year is a valuable juncture for a lifestyle overhaul, why is that change prescribed in such stifling, strict parameters?
In her book Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives, journalist Anna Kessel hits a painfully familiar note when she writes: “Exercise, with its approved end-goal of delivering you a better body, is revered for twenty-first-century women … Exercise for women has gone mainstream … But sport for women is seen as distinct from all this activity. Sweating from sporting exertion is not seen as beautiful.”
In 2018, the relationship between women and exercise is still laced with ambivalence, even after a summer of female excellence in the sporting arena. There must – should – be a prescribed end-point, but in a world of preconceptions and extremist views, sport can at times look scary.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Mixed Zone’s Katie Whyatt listened in to a passionate discussion about body image between Rugby World Cup winner Maggie Alphonsi and Olympic javelin bronze medallist Goldie Sayers in conjunction with Virgin Money Giving’s #One Challenge campaign.
Maggie Alphonsi: I probably felt quite conscious about my body [at the age of 14 when she was five foot three and just shy of 11 and a half stones]. And when I played rugby, it was the one place where I felt accepted. As a young child playing rugby, I found that I could be free. To be powerful and strong was a good thing. I was almost a bit reckless, I just didn’t know how to control my body strength. Rugby found me and gave me a niche to excel in. Instead of being told to stop being aggressive, I was being told, ‘Do what you do’. And that’s such a great feeling.
Goldie Sayers: I’m passionate about young girls doing sport, because it’s more about investing in yourself. Your body is a vehicle to do something you’re passionate about. You can express yourself through movement: you feel like you’re in a slightly altered state, because you’re mentally and physically at one. It’s a movement that I feel totally in control of. It’s just everything happening, altogether, as it should be – and it’s effortless.
If I don’t exercise, I just feel terrible. I really feel tired. Everybody’s body is very different – you can’t change your genetics. I was never going to be mad skinny – but I loved the fact that I had a body that could be flexible and powerful and fast.
Maggie: When I was getting into rugby and I wanted to get much better at it, I was like, ‘I wish I had bigger thighs. I wish I had a bigger back’ – all the things that you’re probably told not to have when you’re growing up, because that’s not what the general perception is [of the female body]. When I got into rugby, and I started being more successful, I wanted bigger muscles, and I wanted to feel strong and feel good about myself. But then there’s always that level of: am I going against what society said I should be?
That’s when I started to think about strength, and actually strength is being the best at your special skill. It means being able to show the best version of yourself. When we’re talking about body image, I think it’s really people being able to be confident in who they are and what they stand for. Showing strength was showing people that, regardless of my size, I had strengths in other areas. But what’s hard is when you come out of your sport and you’ve lost that identity of being an athlete – and then you kind of go, ‘Does my body now still fit with what I thought the world would like?’
Goldie: But then it’s allowing other people to be for themselves. Because actually the majority of women are so anxious about their bodies that whatever shape or size they are, they would still see a fault. They waste a lot of time worrying.
I wish more women could feel as free as I did [posing naked for Sport magazine’s ‘Sport Uncovered’ feature to highlight the myriad of body shapes in sport]. I would normally mind being sat in a room with six blokes I’d never even met. But in context, because it was supposedly artistic, it was, ‘This is what a javelin thrower’s body looks like, and it might surprise a few people’. Some people might have thought we’d be absolutely massive, that we’d be bigger. But I didn’t have a care in the world. I’m sure if I’d not done sport, I would have been really self-conscious doing it. I wasn’t in the best shape, but I was in reasonable shape – and I was glad that I did it. That’s what sport gives you: you do have a confidence in your body.
Maggie: I’m very against [naked photoshoots]. Yours is tasteful and yours is fine, [but] I think it’s about context. I disagree with it when, for some reason, it’s mainly females required to do it. Leading up to the Olympics, you always see a lot of naked pictures of athletes, and I really don’t understand – because I find it more powerful, showing more strength, when you’re wearing your sporting attire. I think yours is a very good image, but when it almost seems like it’s forced upon athletes to do it, and there’s no need for them to be naked – that’s when I’m more inspired by athletes wearing their sporting uniform, and showing strength through being.
In our society, we have a go at super-skinny models who are half-naked. We have an issue with them showing their body because of the effect it has on younger girls wanting to look like that. Don’t you think, to an extent, with athletes, some women aren’t going to be certain sizes? I know there have been pictures of women who are different sizes now, and it’s good they’re showing diversity – but don’t you think it adds the same pressure on young people who think, ‘I need to look like that and how do I get to that?’
Goldie: It does. And I think it’s permeating into male society as well now. Young men think they need to be ripped – it’s just unattainable, mostly, and there’s a lot of pressure. What most people don’t realise is that it’s not like you maintain that body shape, in the same way in sport – boxers don’t maintain that body weight because it’s not healthy.
You tend to see the body as a tool in sport, and not a natural form. You can’t separate mental and physical – I never saw my body as a tool, but it was imperative to look after it. I think there’s this thought process that you’re in good shape when you’re really lean, when, actually, I was probably in the best shape – physically and performance-wise – when I wasn’t the leanest I’ve ever been. Your body will work for you if you work with it, but it takes time. Sometimes it lets you down – not deliberately. But then I found what you could put it through and how it can repair amazing.
Maggie: I really didn’t appreciate how aware of my body I was when I was competing. You are one with your body when you’re an athlete because your finances, effectively, evolve around it functioning well. Your profile, your identity – everything is tied in with this one body. I panicked about it all the time. Why is my knee sore? You don’t notice it until you stop, and then your body’s not that relevant, because it doesn’t necessarily have to make you money. And then you realise, this instrument still needs to be cared for, looked after, and you still need to have an awareness of it.
My body almost failed me towards the end of my career and I got quite angry at it. When you had niggles, and it was just one after another, you’re like, ‘Why is my body not working for me right now?’ But I guess when you work with your surgeons and your consultants and they tell you you’ve got one year left in that body to be the best you can be as an athlete, you take approaches to preserve your body. I would manage my load more. I got frustrated with my body, but then it surprised me. You mentally get through situations where you think you would never normally get through.
Rugby has now become more of a high-profile sport, and all the women are different sizes. I think people look at it now and go, ‘It doesn’t matter what size you are – you can still be skilful in a field’. We saw tennis players, and we knew what tennis players looked like; we saw swimmers, and we knew what swimmers looked like. And I think now, when people see rugby, they go, ‘Wow – there’s a prop who’s really big, and there’s a scrum half who’s short and tiny, and there’s a winger who’s really quick and lean’. People are starting to accept.
I know athletics is divided into sports – on TV, you probably see more sprinters, heptathletes, rather than your field athletes: shot-putters and discus and javelin throwers. So, actually, is the world still [learning to be] accepting [of] different sizes, because we want to see more of one or the other? I think, in rugby, people are starting to accept it, but the person who’s probably given more profile isn’t always necessarily a prop. I’m not saying that it’s anything to do with their body shape, but it is just, people associate more with the one who looks like a rugby player – lean and so on.
Goldie: I think that’s the same in the male game. And in the major athletics, sprinters are always going to get more coverage than other things. But, actually, I am interested in who the fastest person is on the planet, so it kind of works both ways. But athletics is not very well covered in in terms of the breadth of the sport.
Maggie: I still think we need to keep pushing it and celebrating body forms – and not necessarily just the body forms. People’s ability to do things well is what we should be celebrating.
Watch the #OneChallenge Film series here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Whyatt. Katie’s latest articles