By David Cox
KINGSTON, Jamaica, — Despite being the daughter of Jamaica’s most famous son, Cedella Marley still remembers the schoolyard body shaming she experienced as a teenager while growing up competing at netball and swimming.
“I got teased mercilessly for being overweight back then,” 51-year-old Marley, the eldest child of reggae icon Bob Marley tells Al Jazeera. Today it’s the rounder, plumper girls that are in, and it’s the muscular girls who are looked at as being unattractive. But we have to grow as a people in Jamaica, and we have to embrace people who don’t look the way that we think they should,” Marley said.
“And especially when you’re representing your country as athletes, the only thing we should care about is if you’re good. Nothing else should matter.”
Marley has been championing body positivity in sport ever since she became involved with the Reggae Girlz – Jamaica’s women’s football team who are making history as the first side from the Caribbean ever to compete at the women’s World Cup – five years ago.
Back in 2014, she began championing their cause and sponsoring the team through the Bob Marley Foundation after hearing that the Jamaican Football Federation (JFF) had disbanded the squad and cut their funding three years earlier.
But she became increasingly irate at the prevailing culture within Jamaica when she repeatedly tried to find corporate brands to sponsor the team. The rejections were not because the team lacked talent, but because they were athletic, and female.
“The biggest thing which irritated me was people saying no, just because they’re young women playing football,” Marley said. “I didn’t understand why that was such a big issue. When I asked why these companies were refusing to help, they would reply, ‘Well, the girls look too much like men’.”
“So they weren’t getting the opportunity to chase their dreams, because of other people’s preferences of what a female body should look like. And I don’t like that. I have three sons, and I can’t imagine them trying out for a sport, and having someone say, ‘Your skin is too dark. That doesn’t fit into what we believe a team should look like. Can you imagine?'”
Over the past five years, Marley’s determination has almost single-handedly helped make the team’s dreams reality, putting together a global crowdfunding project to finance their victorious qualifying campaign last year.
But with no help from the federation, the budget was miniscule. Until recently the entire coaching staff were volunteers, while the players have become accustomed to paying for everything from their own kit, to meals.
“Cedella literally kept our heads above water,” said goalkeeper Yazmeen Jamieson. “We wouldn’t have anything without her.”
The federation insists that the decision to strip the team’s funding eight years ago was entirely due to tight budget constraints, rather than an indifferent attitude to women’s sport.
“Each country’s circumstances are different,” says Dalton Wint, JFF general secretary. “People don’t realise how expensive it is. It costs $200,000 to run just one training camp.”
However, the players themselves are more cynical, suspecting that football is still perceived throughout the country as a game which is meant only for men. Jamieson points to how the Jamaican men’s team, the Reggae Boyz, are still handsomely funded, despite having not qualified for the World Cup since 1998.
“The Reggae Boyz get to travel everywhere, but they’re not even winning,” she says. “And we are qualifying for the World Cup with the bare minimum, and it’s like, imagine if you gave us that support.”
“When the Reggae Boyz qualified in 1998, they were each given land and a house. What did we get? $2,000. Which is nothing given that in the past two years, I’ve paid for so much, while competing for the team.”
Midfielder Allyson Swaby said the main issue is not so much the comparative amounts of money, but simply respect.
“People think, ‘Oh these girls just want to get paid as much as the men’,” she says. “But it’s not all about money, it’s about being treated with professionalism,” lamented Swaby.
“As an example, the World Cup will be the first time we actually have jerseys with our names on them. There’s no international male players going out on the field without their names on the back of their jerseys.”
Even after reaching the World Cup, there has been an uneasy relationship between the Reggae Girlz and the rest of the country. Jamieson describes their qualification celebrations last December as low-key with a mere handful of people turning out to watch the team parade around the island.
She believes that one of the reasons for such lack of support has been a combination of Jamaica’s complicated relationships with sexuality and women’s sport.
“With Jamaicans, homosexuality is a very taboo subject,” she said. “When I first joined the team, a lot of the girls were lesbians and very open about it, so people didn’t want to support the Reggae Girlz because they were like, ‘Oh they’re just men, they’re manly, they’re all gay’.”
But the funding has at least belatedly arrived. Since February, sponsors ranging from Caribbean Airlines to beverage company Wisynco have pledged support for the Reggae Girlz World Cup campaign, while the JFF has contributed more than $1m to finance the team’s preparations before and during the tournament.
“The World Cup is a special project,” Wint said. “This has never been done before, so we decided that this is something special.” The girls have gifted this to us, and so we have done something special for them. The whole campaign in France is costing around $2m, and more than 50 percent of that is coming from the JFF coffers.”
In recognition of the achievement, the JFF has also offered several of the players their first-ever official contracts for female footballers, ensuring that they will be paid a salary from January to August 2019.
However, trust levels between players and federation remain low.
The Reggae Girlz refused to sign the contracts for several months, a stand-off which lasted until early May, claiming that the initial offer was not satisfactory.
In addition, the team’s pre-World Cup training camp in Scotland was marred by a scheduling mix-up which meant several members of the squad were severely delayed because they did not have the correct visas.
“It’s hard for us to trust the federation because there’s just been so many issues,” Jamieson said. “I know they say that they’re trying but at the same time, it’s really hard for me to believe it. I don’t know where half the money goes, because they say we’re getting all this money and we don’t see it.”
But while the team are determined to make a mark in France, there are question marks in the back of their minds about their future.
The JFF has refused to make any promises regarding funding the team beyond August.
“This is the first time that we’re seeing the women’s program entertaining a serious adventure,” Wint said. “But it’s affordability that determines what we do going forward.”
However, Marley insists that whatever happens at the World Cup, she refuses to quit backing the team.
“The Reggae Girlz have given me something to look forward to,” said Marley. “Football in the Caribbean has been seen as a men’s sport and female players haven’t been taken seriously, but hopefully this can bring a real change in that perception. This is my hope, not only for the federation but for Jamaica as a whole to support the girls.
“And for companies out there, if people want to look at the Reggae Girlz as a business, they’re a viable marketing investment. Believe me, I know something about that. But whatever happens, I can handle this fight. We’re going to do it with corporate Jamaica or without them.”