A Game Changer
Today I want to write about football. Not a sentence I ever expected to write , however on Sunday evening I was one of the 17.4m people who tuned into the BBC to watch the England team of Lionesses as they won the final of the 2022 Euros football tournament. Let me be clear, I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in football and never have, but I am interested in the spaces that women are allowed to occupy and I am also interested in how we view our own bodies. I hope and believe that this moment will be seen as a game changer for both of these things to the benefit of all women, even me, but especially for our granddaughters who have been shown that girls can be strong, powerful, athletic, dynamic, energetic and skilful in an arena - Wembley Stadium - traditionally reserved for men.
A hundred years ago the Football Association banned women from playing on their grounds, effectively killing the sport until the ban was lifted in 1972
Whilst the men were away fighting in the trenches of the Great War, females working in munitions factories had formed teams and leagues which were hugely popular; one Boxing Day match attracted 53,000 spectators and prominent female players became national celebrities. But after the war women were expected to accept their marginalisation in the sport once more, and the FA gave the pathetic excuse that playing football wasn’t appropriate for the female body, which was backed by the medical profession. This reprehensibly sexist attitude was to last for the next fifty one years.
I was a primary school teacher in the early 1970s and was fascinated by the differences between the young girls and boys in my care when I was on playground duty. Invariably the boys would be charging around the playground with a football, dominating the entire available space. The girls appeared to be content to play their games passively at the margins. Hopscotch was popular as was skipping (taking turns and singing rhymes) and many would just sit watching what was going on or chatting in small groups. That was fifty years ago, so I had hoped much would have changed. However, this morning I heard a comment from a teacher on Woman’s Hour who emailed to say that the girls often complain to her that the boys won’t let them join in their football games ‘because girls don’t play football’. Plus ça change. But perhaps this is that pivotal moment when boys large and small accept the need to share their playing space with the girls.
Chloe Kelly celebrates her winning goal
And from the spaces girls are allowed to occupy to the bodies they are allowed to inhabit. As I have no appreciation of the finer points of the glorious game, my highlight of the match happened when Chloe Kelly pulled off her shirt and twirled it above her head so that she was wearing just her sports bra to celebrate having just scored the winning goal. The gesture was entirely unladylike which is precisely why I loved it so much. She didn’t remove her shirt for titillation or to attract the gaze of any men watching, but to exuberantly celebrate the power of a strong, athletic body which had just triumphantly clinched the match for England. I hope the gesture wasn’t lost on the thousands (millions?) of impressionable young girls watching in the stadium and at home.
We females have not been socialised to see our bodies primarily as strong, powerful and useful . Our bodies are measured and judged according to how sexually attractive they are. John Berger summed it up best in his book ‘Ways of Seeing’: “From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.” I hope that my granddaughters learn a very different lesson about themselves from watching active women with strong, lithe bodies as they use them to achieve sporting prowess. If henceforward women can define their success not in terms of their physical attractiveness to men but, as Chloe Kelly did on Sunday, in terms of their confidence in who they are, then that will indeed be a game changer.
In some ways this has echoes of a strange epiphany I had on my recent trip to Italy in relation to my own body. Let me set the scene. I arrived at the airport in Pisa at near midnight thanks to a delayed departure. I was met by the owner of the villa I had rented for three weeks, an attractive older Italian man called G. As is my wont, I’d made sure that I looked as good as possible on arrival after a long and frustrating journey. G was charming and kind, helped me with my luggage and drove me the 45 minutes back to Lerici. I eventually got to bed at 2.30 am, so I was very tired the next morning. Not thinking that anyone would see me, I got up, donned just my swimsuit, ran a brush through my hair and, very unusually, decided not to bother with any makeup.
Relaxing by the pool on a previous holiday in France. This year I made a conscious decision only to wear my makeup when I felt like it
As I was walking to the pool area, G and his very young and attractive girlfriend (!) were coming down the steps from their top floor apartment. My first impulse was to hide, but there was no way to avoid them, so I had to stop for a chat. The ‘surveyor’ part of me was painfully aware of how ‘naked’ and exposed I felt with none of my usual protective armour of clothes and makeup, and the ‘surveyed’ part felt embarrassed and somewhat mortified and self-conscious. Then I had the epiphany. I realised that I really didn’t care what either of them thought of my bare face and less than beach-ready body. The liberation of this thought was breathtaking! And for the rest of my holiday I pleased myself whoever was there, sometimes wearing makeup if I felt like it and sometimes not bothering, and wearing just my swimsuit all day, every day, without constantly covering up my wobbly bits when moving around.
I wasn’t sure whether to share this with you or not. I have lived for 74 years in a body that I don’t like very much. For about thirty years I tortured it with binge/starve eating in a futile attempt to shrink my hips. I eschewed all sport because I was hopeless at it at school and avoided all forms of exercise until, aged 69, I realised that I needed to take action before it was too late. Over time I learnt ways to enhance the good bits and disguise the bad bits, so I never wear dresses or skirts because I hate the shape of my legs and ankles. This ‘body shaming’ stems from what Berger calls my internal ‘surveyor’ and ‘surveyed’. For me the triumph of the Lionesses on Sunday is about finally reclaiming a space which was always rightfully theirs, and about using their bodies purposefully to play football with grace, beauty and strength. It may have taken me a very long time, but at long last I have also claimed a space for myself in which I can finally say I accept and feel really comfortable in my body. And that too is a game changer.