In the second edition of Red's Meet Your Hero series, Roanna Day meets personal hero Anna Kessel. We believe we rise by lifting others so here we are celebrating, connecting with and interviewing our heroes because every woman has a hard-earned piece of truth we can all benefit from...
I, like so many women today, have a fairly complex relationship with my body, sport and exercise. Looking back I can see that my rejection of sport stemmed from feeling rejected, shut out and unwelcome in sporting environments.
It started when I couldn’t play the games the boys were playing and was then too stubborn to play “girls games”. And so I blocked it out and rejected it before it could reject me. Mind over matter I thought, who needs sport?
Well, according to – everyone. Anna Kessel along with her excellent book was the catalyst for my personal sporting revival. Her passion for women in sport and tireless work in the area laid the groundwork for me, and so many others, to brave the pitch once again.
Anna is, among other things, a journalist for the Guardian and Observer, the author of Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Your Life, the co-founder of and was awarded an MBE for services to journalism and women in sport in 2016.
She is a woman who champions, with ease and grace, women’s place on the playing field. She is a woman fighting not only for better opportunities for women already into sport but fighting to change the conversation around and the language used within sport so that women finally feel at home there.
I believe in Anna because, in truth, I’ve never felt more myself, more of a woman, more confident than when drenched in sweat punching it out in my sport of choice. Who needs sport? Well, actually, everyone I think.
I sat down with Anna to talk sport, sweat, what gets her up in the morning and levelling out the playing field…
Let’s start with your relationship with sport and the place sport has in your life now…
I started like you, I bunked PE lessons, I didn’t play sport. I believed there were sporty people and not sporty people. Somehow, I was categorised as a ‘not sporty’ person and I have no idea how that decision was made.
I remember going to a secondary school parent’s evening and I went to put my name down for the PE teachers chat and they said “Really, you don’t need to be here” and I felt so rejected, at just eight or nine.
It’s so frustrating that so much of that rhetoric still exists today. There have been so many successes and so much has improved for women and girls in sport but still there is such a long way to go.
For example, my friend went to the gym the other day, to sign up along with another friend and the member of staff there said “Look, give it six months and you could look like your friend”. My brilliant friend responded saying “Well, I love my friend – she’s brilliant. But actually, I want to look like me and actually what you’re saying and a lot of the things this form say, are incredibly damaging for a more vulnerable woman.”
So, on the one hand I’m saying “get moving, any movement is rewarding!” but I’m scared that people will then go into those sort of environments, experience that sort of language and be at risk of something incredibly damaging.
I don’t go to the gym for that reason.
Now, If I go running, it’s outside, in the park. Somewhere I can breathe and escape from everything.
If I want to get stronger I don’t want to sit in the gym, I’ll swing my kids around more or go to a yoga class.
And what sports do you play?
I didn’t use to play sport a lot, It was actually while I was writing Eat Sweat Play that I started properly with one of my friends.
I had just had my second child and was experiencing what a game changer that is, it’s a real mental health challenge! It was in this time that sport, for me, became a chance to get some time away and some headspace.
My friend wanted to try rowing and even though I really didn’t think it was for me I signed up with her. We started with a ‘learn to row’ course and quickly fell in love with it.
We rowed through the snow, through the cold. It was tough but amazing.
At one point, after me and my friend had been rowing together the coach commented saying “Oh, you’re actually really good at this, really talented.”
I was 38 at the time and my first thought was: “Oh my God, if I’d known this years ago maybe I could have done this at a serious level.”
What have you discovered about sport and relationship building?
It was through rowing that I first learned about how female friendships can be a huge asset in sport.
Our rowing coach was really amazed at how we had this natural ability and she asked: “How long have you known each other for?” We answered “25 years” and she said “That’s why. You have this natural confidence and trust in each other, this implicit confidence.”
That was the first time I’d heard it spelled out that female friendship can be a crucial component to sporting excellent. Female friendship which is so often belittled and seen as frivolous, bitchy and frothy was actually making us strong, powerful and kick ass.
I ask Anna about the CrossFit games where men and women compete together in fitness-driven competitions….
I love things like ToughMudder where men and women compete together and excitingly in the next Olympics there will be lots of mixed gender events - breaking down some really archaic ideas about what men and women can do. The more, as adults, we can compete together, the better.
I am cautious of the whole Fitspo movement though. It’s just making women feel bad and I think we’ve already done a few thousand years of that so, it’s time for change.
You have two daughters, are you doing anything deliberately or consciously to make sport more accessible for your daughters?
So some of it is about overcoming my own stuff, stuff that might have held me back in the past or felt embarrassed about. For example, playing football, I still don’t really know how to play but since my daughter’s been really small I’ve made a point of playing football with her, in my own crappy way. We deliberately don’t make it a “a thing”. It’s not about being sporty, it’s just us, kicking a ball around.
My first daughter was sort of into it but it was interesting seeing how, because my youngest had grown up seeing us play, by the time she could walk she was really into it and was kicking the ball around with real confidence. It’s all about the culture you come into and the way sport is spoken about around you.
Some people say that we don’t need to talk about it anymore, that there are equal opportunities now for women in sport but that is a lie. It’s just not true.
“You can’t play football, girls don’t play football” is just a standard line that girls hear at school.
One of the teachers at my daughter’s primary school has dedicated one session a week to girls football. During the session the boys are allowed to play anything but football and the girls are invited to play football with the teacher. It means boys playing football doesn’t always dominate, which is like the boy equivalent of manspreading!
We need more of this. Everything from messaging on clothing, in books – even children’s books – still sends the same message. That sport is for boys, not girls. Just walk down a supermarket aisle and you can tell there’s still a problem.
I came across a children’s book, by one of my favourite children’s authors, about an elephant family that go on a diet. It’s full of guilt and damaging messaging, and that's just a children’s book!
The ‘F word’ – football. It feels like so much of this problem around woman and sport hangs on football. How do we participate and how do we help?
It’s perverse that we have a national game that only half the population are playing. Things are changing but we are like 100 years behind the men.
We’re dealing with a huge legacy of inequality but this World Cup, with Vicky Sparks as commentator and two female pundits taking part has marked a sea change. Just hearing a women’s voice amplified in that context is very cool. All of these things are important.
There’s still so much work to be done. Someone very kindly gave a me book all about football, the greatest footballers of all time and it had four female footballers in and 46 male. It’s a beautiful book but I said “Thank you very much but I’m going to give this back to you, I don’t want to show this to my daughters.” Because I know the conclusion she’ll come away with if she looks at it. When that book is 50-50, then I’ll buy it!
Football shouldn’t be about being English, or patriarchal. It's just about playing. Nationalism can fuck off. It’s a game, it’s about coming together – whatever your sex, wherever you’re from.
Do you have any advice for women wanting to get into sport? Who are picking up on the signs of change and want to give it a go? Because it’s still so scary!
Be kind to yourself and go easy on yourself!
There was a GP, one of the mums at my daughter’s school and she was telling me that she’d been told to recommend Park Run, which is a 5k race, to her patients. Park Run is brilliant but I wouldn’t recommend it to somebody who had never run before, it’s 5k – hell no!
You’re probably going to do it, feel like you’re going to die and then and never go back again.
So I think if it’s running you want to try then just allow yourself to walk as much as you want, or go for 10 minutes or try Couch 2 5k which is amazing. Just allow yourself to be curious about what exercise, sport or activity you might want to try and not be too judgmental about whether it’s the right thing.
Just give it a go and if you don’t love it, leave. If the environment isn’t supportive and people don’t make you feel good then don’t feel like you have to stick it out.
Sport England shared the evidence that went into the This Girl Can campaign where they found that 75% of women wanted to play sport but didn’t for fear of judgment. And while yes, a lot of that judgement is partly about body image and wearing the right clothes and getting sweaty, a lot of it was also about ability and being humiliated or being embarrassed.
I think that’s key, women don’t only think about their bodies. They think about what they’re doing with them too - and they want to get things right!
So remember it’s a learning curve, it’s something new, if you’re rubbish at it doesn’t matter.
So onto you and your daily routine – what’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?
On normal days it’s just a scramble to get the kids out the door. We’ve developed this new technique, which is a bit sportsy, because we used to get stressed about getting out on time so we started saying to my oldest daughter “This is teamwork” and on the mornings we did really well she’d give me a high five and go “Mum we did really well today, didn’t we? Look we’re all on time and everybody’s got everything!” and on the days it didn’t go so well we’d be like “Ah well, we didn’t do so well this morning but we’ll try again tomorrow.”
But, one to two times a week I get the luxury of going to yoga at 7am. It’s the best thing. I get up, get my yoga gear, kiss goodbye to my husband and I leave my cares behind. I go and 'Om' for an hour and my husband takes the kids to school and it just sets me up for the day.
They do this really nice meditation that’s all about personal realisation, and balance - it’s not about being able to do the splits!
What is the thing that you use to switch off after a long, tiring day? How do you quiet your brain and relax?
It sort of comes in layers. I get home after work and then the work day ends but then the home life starts so it’s get the kids back home, get the dinner ready, whatever needs to be done.
I often find that transition between roles quite hard, especially if I’ve still got loads of work that needs doing, I’ve got to park it and focus on the kids. But once you do it, once you make that transition, then next thing you’re sat in the dark and the kids are eventually drifting off to sleep and that can be quite meditative.
There’s a joke on MumsNet that once the kids are asleep you’ve then got two hours of the day to yourself, and I guess that’s true.
Sometimes both me and husband are guilty of getting the laptops out and sometimes it’s good to do that, to set you up for the next day. But other times it’s good to switch off – for us that often means watching football or something like Love Island or The Power which I’m loving.
How do you prioritise? You have a lot going on, how do you decide what you’re going to put most of your energy into on any one day?
For me, what I’ve worked out is that it’s got to come down to the basics. It sounds really obvious, but just making sure that you’ve got enough sleep, that you eat things you want to eat, making sure that you’re moving well.
I work at home and it can be really tempting to sit down and then not really move until the end of the day so I force myself to pop out for a walk or to a yoga class, or for a run. Anything to get myself moving, it gets easier once you make it a habit.
Work and stress have a really physical impact and we have to push back against it, prioritise our rest, food and movement, otherwise everything just goes to shit.
Tell me about one of your personal heroes?
At the moment I can’t not talk about Serena Williams! For most of her career Serena has been painted as this really difficult person who had an attitude problem. She also has never really fitted into tennis, her body was wrong – she was overly muscular and therefore that was somehow seen as cheating. She’s even faced accusations of doping.
Even without that though the fact that she’s physically the way she is was seen as offensive, ugly, unfeminine and all mixed up in those things is racism and sexism. What I find amazing about her is that all the way, right from the beginning, she spoke out when she saw things that were wrong. And people responded really badly and said she was making trouble.
For example, she always spoke out about women not playing for the same amount of time in Centre Court in Wimbledon. She was constantly called a diva and yet in the last couple of years we’ve started to see the evidence and stats that show that the BBC have favoured men’s matches over women’s on Centre Court that they’ve done that consistently for 15 years.
I’m not slating Wimbledon, I love them and they’re going a long way towards changing, but finally we’re starting to see evidence to show that Serena was right.
She has always challenged norms through her career, despite endless criticism. Now she’s being hailed as a hero and a queen, rightly so, but I think the way she’s been consistent and spoken honestly through changes in her life.
The way she’s talking about motherhood now is incredible, she’s open and vulnerable about the emotional rollercoaster of motherhood and is tackling the taboos involved. From the guilt that always goes along with motherhood to difficult subjects like feeling anger at your own baby – these are subjects we historically don’t talk about but she’s voicing them.
Do you have a personal mantra or piece of advice that you use?
Take each game as it comes.
I find I get into stresses when I start to think of the enormity of the task I have to do, it can be really overwhelming. So when I can focus on just the thing in front of me, that mental discipline to stop all the other things rushing around my brain, that’s the only way I can function.
What, if anything, makes you really angry?
I’ve found in the past then when I’ve got angry about stuff I’ve tried to suppress it and then it’s turned into tears and become depression or negative feelings. It’s really difficult for women to express their anger.
If you do it in a way that actually shows your anger, in public, then people see you as slightly unhinged. I think it’s really unfair on women, men are encouraged to be angry.
Let’s reclaim anger.
What is the thing that gets you up in the morning? And the thought that carries you through tough seasons?
My kids are a massive motivator for me. They put things into perspective when you have a really stressful day at work and then you see them - all the stress of work starts to really recede. They’re the perspective maker for me.
If I had to highlight just one superpower from my hero Anna Kessel it would be her ability to push herself out of her own comfort zones - by doing so she inspires other women to follow suit.
Because of Anna's work I challenge myself to embrace sport in a way I never have before, this attitude shift has transformed my life but more importantly it will change the lives of my daughters and women to come.
From consistently voicing truths about women’s rights in sport, to rowing through freezing November and learning to play football with her daughter. By kicking her way through doors that have long been bolted shut, Anna, along with women like the primary school teacher encouraging girls in her class to play football, is flinging open the changing room doors for women everywhere.
Who’s up for a kick-about?