The Her Movement Interview: Anna Kessel
Interviewed by Charlotte Simmons
Anna Kessel MBE is a sports journalist, acclaimed author and vocal campaigner on equality in sport. Anna has covered Olympic Games and World Championships, and interviewed some of the biggest stars in global sport. A rare female voice in her field, Anna wrote Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Your Life (Macmillan, 2016), a passionate manifesto aimed at bringing sport to the female masses. Co-founder of Women in Football (WiF), an organisation lobbying against sexism in the game, The Independent described her as a “fearless adversary of sexism” in their list of the 50 Most Influential Women in Sport. In 2016 Anna was awarded an MBE for her journalism and campaigning work on women in sport. In 2017 Anna launched The Blue Plaque Rebellion with the Women’s Sport Trust.
Your book Eat, Sweat Play has provided us with so much inspiration. One particular quote; “There is a myriad of reasons as to why women exercise… the smart ones will have latched onto something far more valuable, that sport & exercise is fun” - is at the very heart of our ethos. We want to show women that there is so much to be found beyond the aesthetic reasons that drive them to see exercise as a punishment. How can we stop women thinking that exercise is a punishment & support them in finding an activity that brings them real joy?
When Eat Sweat Play was written, it coincided with the This Girl Can campaign. It felt like there was a cultural change. Since then, it feels like a lot of people have latched onto the idea that exercise is not just a punitive thing to lose weight. They talk about how it’s good for their mental health (which is brilliant, it really is good for your mental health!) but there is still not much out there about how fun it is! I feel that is a really important hurdle we still need to smash through.
Helen Lewis is currently writing a book about feminism and one of the chapters is about leisure. There are these really disturbing stats about how women have so much less leisure time than men, so I guess in some ways, women don’t have the capacity to think about turning exercise into fun because we don’t have enough time in our lives for fun generally. I think if we are going to make space for exercise, definitely let’s make space for it in terms of our mental health and having that time and space for yourself, partially mums or women with caring responsibilities or stressful jobs but let’s also ensure it includes an element of fun.
I do think that sport is a really important part of that. As much as that word frightens a lot of women still, sport is just so playful! Bouncing on a trampoline or running around with friends playing netball, or what ever it is, is probably going to be more fun than going for a run.
My eldest daughter’s gymnastics club is always packed (there is a waiting list to get in) and they have to get to school for 8 o’clock! Any other day, she will not get out of bed, but for gymnastics she leaps out of bed because it’s so much fun. Why do we lose that? We need to maintain that relationship.
In your book, you talk about how the media focuses on getting the perfect body as the only reason that women should exercise. As consumers, how can we push back against that?
For a start, boycott places that emphasise that, or if you don’t want to boycott it and you otherwise like the gym or the facilities that are there, give them some feedback. For example, a really good friend of mine went to join a gym and on the form it asked, what is your weight loss goal. She just told the guy straight: “I don’t think this should be on your form, I think it’s irresponsible. I don’t want to go to the gym because I want to lose weight, I go to the gym because I want to get stronger and for all these other reasons.”
Highlighting it on social media is massively underrated as a form or protest. It can really change stuff. We absolutely have the power as consumers to let corporations and brands know what we don’t like about what they are doing.
At the moment, brands think this is what consumers want. Magazines and the media are just as bad. Magazines will put on their cover: ‘how to lose weight’ or ‘how to get the perfect bum’, and they think that that sells the magazine. As far as they’re concerned, it does. Until readers and consumers start giving them feedback and start saying, ‘no, I am not going to buy your magazine anymore, until you do XYZ' - then they are not going to change.
Isolating women from exercise starts at school where if you don’t excel at sport, you are often actively discouraged from taking part. How can we support girls to continue a relationship with sport when their initial exposure to it can be so negative?
I think we really do have to tackle PE into schools and from reception onwards, if I had it my way, we would be doing it in nurseries as well to be honest. I do know that a lot of nurseries have started introducing sport and exercise. My daughter’s nursery has a karate teacher coming in once a week now.
The National Sport Strategy starts from 5 years old. It’s brilliant that Tracy Crouch (the then Minister for Sport) did that, it used to start at 14! I mean, whoever committed that to paper and signed that off?! Really, I think it should start from preschool. That’s when kids go to an institutional setting and when they start to pick up thoughts, not just on sport and PE, but also gender norms.
PE and gender norms are all bound together in a tangle that you can’t really separate. This is part of the reason women and girls are so ostracised from sport, and have this dysfunctional relationship. If we can crack this gender equality in that sector, it will have such broad and positive ramifications beyond sport and exercise. This is really exciting, because everyone always reduces the difference between men and women down to our physicality. Not just biologically in terms of our reproductive organs, but in terms of our strength or our speed. If you can explode some of those myths through sport and exercise, I think we genuinely can change the world. (Not to sound to trite - the United Nations said the same, so I am only agreeing with them!)
But your question was about what can we do once we have already buggered it up and lost them? That’s really hard because you're scrambling to re write these negative experiences they’ve already had, in a really formative period of their lives. We’ve made a rod for our own backs in not fixing it from the start. We cannot give up on millions of people who are 11 and upwards. I think secondary schools have to be really motivated in trying to create change, but it’s not easy with the resource cuts they’ve had, and all the other pressures they face.
I think we as parents and family members have to be role models to our children. Not just our daughters; our sons as well. Introducing our sons to women’s professional sports, getting our sons to play sport with other girls. Challenging them if they do say stuff, which inevitably kids do, such as “girls don’t play football”. It doesn’t take that much to change young minds and attitudes. I think it’s important that we don’t just put it on girls and say “right, this is an issue for women and girls”. Perhaps if I was to rewrite Eat Sweat Play or add another chapter, I think it would stress more about the role that boys and men play in that whole conversation.
You have spoken about how pregnancy & motherhood is another period of life where women are completely unsupported and misinformed about exercise. How was your relationship with exercise effected by having children?
Massively. Before I had my eldest daughter, it was very easy to exercise 3 or 4 times a week, jut slip on my trainers, go for a run, go down to the gym, do a nice Zumba class, or yoga, or whatever I fancied. I didn’t really have to think about where that time was going to come from. As soon as you have kids its just a logistical nightmare. You have so little time for yourself. In a way, sometimes it feels like you are asking permission to go and do that, and that’s a shift I think women find it hard to get the hang of.
Even when you have made the emotional shift, you are still left with the logistical side of it. Where does that time come from? Is it time that you then don’t have with your partner once the kids have gone to bed? Or do you have to get up extra early in the morning? Or do you miss a lunch break at work? You’ve also got less money, so it becomes genuinely harder to be able to afford things like a yoga class or a gym membership.
Then there is the whole health information side of it. I have a lot of friends who have had kids and are otherwise really healthy, fit young women. They now have pelvic floor issues, so doing things like trampolining or running makes them worse. Or diastasis recti (the separation of the two sides of the rectos abdominis muscle) so doing crunches, planks or hard-core exercises exacerbates the problem. There isn’t readily available expertise to tell you; “No definitely don’t do this exercise because it’s going to make it worse”, or “If you are going to do it, this is the way you should do it”.
The truth is, I’m really happy to see that women are starting to talk about things like incontinence. A friend of a friend was going running and was getting anal incontinence. A young woman going running and experiencing incontinence just because she is post-natal. It’s just awful. Women in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, should not be experiencing these things. The solution is not just to do a few more Kegel exercises, or start wearing pads every time you go running. We’ve got to make sure we are wholesale putting women through post-natal health care. They need to see women’s health specialists.
If you think about it, it’s yet another humiliating thing about women’s bodies they don’t feel comfortable talking about. I mean how many people want to say, “You know actually I wet myself a little bit one day trampolining, so I don’t want to go.” It’s not the sort of thing you want to tell anyone. I think we are really selling women short and we shouldn’t be shrugging our shoulders and saying, “You know what, you’ve had two kids.”
I think my biggest piece of advice is to insist, even if you don’t think you really have a problem, go to your GP and get a women’s health check. Every women has a right to one. Even if you don’t have a problem, at least you know all your muscles are in place and operating nicely. If you do have a problem, they can pick it up early and it’s much easier to fix at a younger age than it is in your 50’s or 60’s. Do it now, I cannot emphasise it enough!
Perhaps the most powerful thing about sport is the sense of belonging it creates in those who play and follow it. How does sport help us build relationships?
A difficult question to answer because I didn’t grow up playing team sport. It’s something I feel I really missed out on. I suppose an example I would give is when my best friend and I started rowing. At that time our children were really young, we didn’t have much time for ourselves. We did a 5-week ‘learn to row’ course on the river just down the road from us.
We found the most brilliant rowing club, found female coaches and women’s teams. It was a really positive experience. Me and my friend got in a boat and we were doing sculling together, it was just the two of us, and the female coach said, “You guys are really good, I can’t believe you’ve never rowed before!” Obviously, we were chuffed to bits with that.
After a while she asked, how long we had known each other? We looked at each other and told her we had known each other for 25 years! “Well that’s it!” she said, “Because you’ve got that bond, you’ve got that friendship and you’ve got that implicit trust and intuition about each other, and that’s why you’re performing so well in the sport.”
That was a real revelation to me. Female friendship is always characterised as a bit superficial, definitely bitchy, just kind of fluffy and unimportant. It’s looked down on a lot, so it was wonderful to see this female friendship characterised as something that gave us skills, that gave us sporting excellence, that gave us an advantage in a competition. I mean how amazing to be cast in that really positive light!
I know that’s not the same as going to a stadium and watching sport together, or playing in a big team. In terms of that team work, it gave a new facet to our friendship we hadn’t experienced before. It made us appreciate how powerful our friendship is, in a way we had never known.
You have interviewed so many amazing women from Helen Glover to Jet the Gladiator - Who would be your ultimate subject to interview?
Serena Williams. Hands down, Serena Williams. I’ve never interviewed her one-to-one, I’ve been at press conferences when I’ve done Wimbledon and, in that light, I’ve seen how the press have characterised her. There’s that really, really uncomfortable, misogynist dynamic of a group of mainly white men writing about a powerful black woman at the top of her game and managing to make their reports really derogatory or derisory.
I would love to meet her in a different environment where I can just talk to her one–to–one. I would probably do a useless interview, as I’d spend the whole-time fan-girling her. (We know the feeling, Anna!)
Health & fitness is one of the most powerful forces on social media & not always for the better. Do you have any advice on how to build a healthy & inspiring social media feed?
I find I get followed by people who have loads and loads of followers, and are into sport and exercise I click on their profile and I take a quick look at what they do, what they put out and what their messages are. If I don’t like it, I’m that person who doesn’t follow back. I just can’t. I don’t want to see before and after pictures (in that cliché, before I lost weight and now I’m shredded) I’m just not interested in that stuff.
I think mental health is something people talk about a lot nowadays, and in some ways, it’s becoming a bit hackneyed. I think it’s a really important conversation. It’s not good for my mental health to support those feeds. If that means I have less followers as a result, I don’t really care.
I don’t think it matters how many followers you have. Your platform is really influential, even if it’s just your family and closest friends. Those conversations we can have with our family and friends are really powerful in terms of changing the world, so we should never underestimate that.