Pure joy and a sports bra: the photo that sums up England’s women’s Euro victory | Lucy Ward

NOTo any other word will do but joy. Image of Chloe Kelly, 24, twirling her shirt above her head after scoring the Lionesses tournament-winning goal against Germany, chased across the Wembley turf by exultant teammates Jill Scott and Lauren Hemp, release – and inhale – a sunny burst of delight.

The celebratory photo perfectly captures the story of England Women’s Euro 22 victory – a fiercely united team, an unwavering sense of goal, a sense of positivity that transcended even sparkling successes on the pitch. At a time of division and real economic pain for many, the Lionesses – with their infectious smiles from ear to ear captured forever – have brought us all unmitigated happiness.

But, like the unexpected overwhelming response to a tweet I posted Revealed, there’s more to this image than your average sports photo, even one showing an England senior football team winning their first major trophy in 56 years. Kelly, after pausing in near-fright to make sure her goal was cleared, removed her top to spin it in victory, happily revealing her white sports bra to 87,192 fans in the stadium and millions of others watching the match around the world. “It’s a woman’s body – not for sex or show – just for the sheer joy of what she can do and the power and skills she has.” I wrote.

I was not alone. Within moments, the shot was called “iconic” – the “enduring image” of the women’s final and indeed the tournament. Young women on Twitter started cheering on Kelly — and her bra. “Her sports bra will forever go down in history,” wrote one fan, while another commented, “Chloe Kelly celebrating her goal in a sports bra is the feminist image of the decade .”

For me and other, ahem, older watchers, Kelly’s celebration has a resonance that younger fans won’t remember. In 1999, American footballer Brandi Chastain secured her country its second Women’s World Cup victory with a magnificent decisive penalty against China – then celebrated by ripping off her top and throwing herself on her knees. The image of Chastain in her black sports bra with her arms raised mightily has given a huge boost to women’s soccer in America, whose team leads the world. The “99-ers” are still warmly remembered.

Brandi Chastain celebrates after winning the Women’s World Cup for the United States against China, in Pasadena, California, July 1999. Photography: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Chastain, who tweeted his congratulations to Kelly (“Enjoy free rounds of pints and dinners for the rest of your life from all of England”), has pondered the next moment and already offered a hint at the appeal of shirtless image: “There’s something primal about sport that doesn’t exist anywhere else – when you have a moment like scoring a winning goal in the World Cup championship, you’re allowed to unleash that feeling, that emotion, that response that is not elicited anywhere else.” (Of course, it’s not technically allowed – based on the rule against “excessive celebration” of a goal, Kelly was shown a yellow card.)

This primal expression of liberation is summed up in the photo of Kelly and her teammates. Generally, public images of women are contrived, designed by others – often men – for the gaze of an outsider. Even the “natural” representations of women in our infinite variety, such as those co-opted so profitably by the Dove campaign, are commodified, stylized. Here, it’s more of a woman who thinks about herself, her sporting talent and her team: looking outside, even when you’re looking at her. So she’s in a bra? What about? Try playing without.

The history of women’s sport has been a history of clutter, both politically and physically. Previously, Chloe Kellys played tennis in long skirts, forcing aside folds of heavy fabric as they rushed for a backhand. Edwardian female rowers endured similar absurd outfits and, until 2015, were told they weren’t strong enough to row the Tideway Boat Race test course. The long decades of exclusion of women from professional football in Britain is a shameful history that we should remember, to recognize the many powerful shoulders on which the Lionesses stand.

No one can reverse the triumph of English women any longer. Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham said the team had not only “captured the hearts of the nation, but also broken down boundaries. They left a lasting legacy that will positively impact women’s and women’s football in this country for generations to come. Boundaries have indeed disappeared: Kelly’s shirtless photo speaks of joy and freedom for women, athletic or not, to see and celebrate the world in our own way.

  • Lucy Ward is a freelance journalist and author of The Empress and the English Doctor

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