The Netball World Cup kicks (throws?) off on 12 July, adding another event to the long list of women’s sports to celebrate. Here, ex-pro Sara Bayman tells Stylist why that’s more important than ever.
Women exercising is no longer a taboo. The conversation about getting strong has gotten louder, and the shame around sweating has lifted. In fact, in the year up to November 2018, 286,000 more women were active than the year prior, according to Sport England. The Women’s World Cup inspired 2.6 million women to play football in June – the highest amount ever recorded. And, in 2017, there was a 44% increase in netball participation at grass roots level.
One person who is here for that is Sara Bayman. As a netball coach, director of netball at the Loughborough Lightening squad and an ex-professional player, representing England in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and wearing vests for Team Bath, Manchester Thunder and Sirens Netball, she knows all too well the power that playing sports can have for women. To her, it may even be the solution for our complicated, aesthetic-obsessed relationship with our bodies.
“I think the difference in perception about your body in sport is that it’s a tool so you need to look after it,” she tells Stylist. “You don’t want to be getting ill, you don’t want to be getting injured, you don’t want to be physically weak.”
Seen on screen
As well as speaking as an athlete, Bayman also talks about the importance of seeing women run, score, win and lose on screen as a fan .
Although we spoke pre-football World cup, I can tell that she was cheering on the Lionesses. Sharing a tweet with the news that a record breaking 12 million people tuned in to watch England take on the USA in the semi-final (which, in our days of on-demand streaming, is not to be sniffed at) she replied: “That’s what I’m talking about!”.
In our interview, it was almost as though she had pre-empted the buzz around the game, saying: “There is an appetite for it now. People are realising that good sport is good sport. It doesn’t matter who’s playing or what gender is competing.”
We mustn’t diminish that fact that we are still in a battle for equal pay and fair treatment in sports. But the success of the World Cup, and the launch of the BBC’s Change The Game campaign putting female athletes front and centre shows that women are edging closer to the respect they deserve.
“One of the important parts of that is role models,” Bayman says. “You see athletes and they look great and it’s not because they are skinny, petite or tiny. It’s because they show strength. Whether that’s physical or mental, you see them go through good times and bad times and you see how they adapt to that.”
Bayman is an athlete – she is paid to be strong. But what does being strong really mean?
“Strong to me means being yourself, being able to show vulnerability and being secure, whether that’s in your body or who you are,” Bayman says.
As a player with all eyes locked on her as she makes a pass, Bayman knows what it’s like to feel vulnerable. But she says that she didn’t find security in those moments alone: “I had a team of women around me and those people [help] you release that, yes, you’re strong but actually sometimes you need other people.”
The future of sport
The Netball World Cup is the next event in the long line up of what has now been dubbed the Summer of Women’s Sports. But after these few months of celebration and awareness are over, what does Bayman see for the future of female athletes and sportswomen? “If you had asked me 10 years ago I would have been less optimistic, but I think seeing how far it’s come in the last three years fills me with hope that we’ll see professional sports women in various areas of sport.”
And just because Bayman has stopped playing for her country, it doesn’t mean she’ll stop gaining strength. “Even now, having retired, my aim is to try to stay strong, because I think that’s when I feel the most empowered physically and mentally.” We hope that this summer has inspired other women to do the same.
Images: Getty / BBC