My body is a racket: An ode to sweaty palms, squash courts and self-possession
And—as much as I hate admitting it now—it was also a ploy for me to shed the occasional unrelenting kilo. To lessen the softness I came to detest; the parts of me that refused to budge after a year of stagnant days (and nights) spent reading through dense textbooks and cleaning up essays. Before long, in a poorly lit recreational centre that almost exclusively played Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart, I fell in love with squash: a disregarded game that once thrived in what The Telegraph aptly coined “the halcyon days of the 80s”. Despite being a sport associated with middle-aged men in polyester polos damp around the collar with sweat, squash quickly became my unforeseen calling; a way to shriek, slide, leap and propel my nimble body into walls and floors without a second thought. On the squash court, I felt genderless: tied down to nothing but my naked desire to win.
And yet, sport remains notoriously gendered. Courts, ovals and pools have long been breeding grounds for masculinity—or, as academic J. Hargreaves once titled—‘musculinity’. It’s as if tucked into the heel and toe of a teenage boy’s Nike football socks lives a kind of mannish power women can only dream of knowing; one associated with conquest and toughness.
For a long time, the defunct case for manliness (“I’m sorry, sweet - but men just happen to be stronger than women”) was one of sexism’s lasting and loudest hurrahs. Woman had vigorously demonstrated her intellect, sure. But if she could also strike a tennis-ball, kick a goal, and magnificently hoist a bar of cast iron above her head, where did that leave man, whose masculinity was itself—as professor Rosemary Deem and Sarah Gilroy described—"partially built on a bedrock of physical strength"? My kitsch hobby felt like a protest. With every blundering swing, I confronted the sort of femininity I had always known. I poked fun at the masculinity I had long gawped at. I was both and neither. My racket was my very own aluminium weapon, slicing through gender with every angry sweep.
But it was never just about manoeuvring my way around glass walls and my father’s wearied feet; our gameplay resembling that of two clumsy dancers after one too many Merlot come the third match. Playing squash, like all competitive sport, had an inevitable resolution. There would only be one winner. With determination, I’d smugly roll up the sleeves of my tee shirt, pin my loose curls back with bobby pins, and give it my all. According to Rosemary Deem and Sarah Gilroy’s research, the physical activities that most adult women in the United Kingdom find themselves drawn to are “walking… yoga, swimming and cycling”; activities that are “pursued non-competitively”.
Lying in the sun on a stretch of lawn in Williamstown with my eyes half shut, I tell a friend how difficult it is to exercise without hating myself, as if the two come together always; an unhappy marriage, but a marriage no less. She agrees. We laugh a little, as images of snake-hipped women with dainty ankles, flat stomachs and exorbitant yoga pants pervade our minds. In the commercial health business, this is the portrayal of physical movement that women are told is theirs: a kind of fitness where your only rival is your dimpled thighs, and not your father—sweatband and all—standing to your left in a tiny, glass court, anticipating your every move. This is the ‘tyranny of slenderness’, as professor Susan Bordo coins: the driving force behind a woman’s pursuit to engage in physical exercise.
I wouldn’t go so far as to claim my love affair with squash to be an empowering one. Squash, like most eighties hangovers, is a pursuit that can’t—and won’t—dismantle sexism with every forceful serve. But by learning to make sense of my body as something with physical prowess—with joints, knuckles and knee caps that willingly accommodate my every move—my body evolved into that of a winner’s body.
To the humdrum of Bonnie Tyler, this ruthless vessel of mine—with beads of sweat that gathered like badges of honour—was hardly my enemy. Instead, it proved my secret weapon. Dimples and all.