I am a fan of Serena Williams, but I’m measured in my advocacy. I don’t believe she is infallible and can do no wrong, but I don’t expect perfection, either. I cannot deny her determination and what it represents for the little girls who look like and grew up like her and Venus, using the public courts in their beloved Compton to practice and grow up to ultimately dominate a sport globally. I cannot deny her dedication.
I – me – I cannot. That doesn’t mean the rest of the globe won’t try.
In fact, when The New York Times dropped an article titled “Tennis’ Top Women Balance Body Image With Quest for Success,” the article was rife with statements about why no one can dominate the sport like Serena. The insinuation was clear: she’d sacrificed certain things that no other competitor of hers were willing to sacrifice – particularly, her womanliness.
Don’t take my word for it, though:
“It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” said Tomasz Wiktorowski, the coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, who is listed at 5 feet 8 and 123 pounds. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.” [source]
This particular quote makes me sick to my stomach.
So much of what all women struggle with when it comes to the way they exercise, the way they train, and the overcrowding of the treadmills during peak lady hours at the gym is tied up into this quote. The idea of keeping her at 123lbs at 5’8″ is how they seek to keep her “a woman,” is connected to the idea that muscles are the arena of men. Women don’t belong there, they don’t thrive there, and they certainly don’t exist in that arena as women.
If Serena says she is comfortable with her muscular physique as a woman, and a journalist juxtaposes her comfort against another competitor’s and her male trainer saying that said competitor’s slim physique is what makes her a woman, what exactly is the takeaway? It’s almost as if “womanliness” is something bestowed upon you by others, instead of something you identify as your own on your own and in your own way.
Radwanska, who struggled this year before a run to the Wimbledon semifinals, said that any gain in muscle could hurt her trademark speed and finesse, but she also acknowledged that how she looked mattered to her.
“Of course I care about that as well, because I’m a girl,” Radwanska said. “But I also have the genes where I don’t know what I have to do to get bigger, because it’s just not going anywhere.” [source]
If your trainer is telling a Times reporter that you’re actively deciding to remain the smallest player in the top 10, that has nothing to do with genes and everything to do with optics… even when the optics negatively impact your game play (to the point where you’re characterized as “struggling” in a major news publication.)
And, no, a gain in muscle of an undetermined amount wouldn’t inherently impact speed – it gives you the ability to drive and power through your moves. Any trainer or coach worth their salt would know that.
For many, perceived ideal feminine body type can seem at odds with the best physique for tennis success. Andrea Petkovic, a German ranked 14th, said she particularly loathed seeing pictures of herself hitting two-handed backhands, when her arm muscles appear the most bulging.
“I just feel unfeminine,” she said. “I don’t know — it’s probably that I’m self-conscious about what people might say. It’s stupid, but it’s insecurities that every woman has, I think. I definitely have them and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I would love to be a confident player that is proud of her body. Women, when we grow up we’ve been judged more, our physicality is judged more, and it makes us self-conscious.” [source]
She hates seeing photos of herself drive the ball across the court – because the public translates the image as her being “manly,” and it affects the way she sees herself.
Again – it’s almost as if “womanliness” is something that someone else can choose to give to you with the left hand, and take away with the right.
“That is really an important acceptance for some female athletes, that their best body type, their best performance build, is one that is not thin; it’s one of power,” said Pam Shriver, a former player and current tennis analyst. [source]
As I said on twitter when this article first dropped, I think it’s safe to say that this is true for virtually all women – not just the ones who need to build for sport. When I hear of women who are of retiring age and are constantly injuring themselves, needing joint replacement surgery, women who starve themselves in their thirties to the point where they can’t open a jar or carry their own bags because they’re too focused on maintaining their “girlish figure,” I think of how these women negatively impact their own quality of life in order to appease a clandestine collective that decides who can call themselves “feminine” and who can’t.
Heather Watson said that she was proud of how she looked and that she thought she and her fellow players had some of the best bodies possible.
“I actually like looking strong,” Watson said. “I find strong, fit women a lot more attractive than lanky no-shape ones.” [source]
For the record? I don’t like this either. It shouldn’t take disparaging the next woman’s body in order for you to adequately make a point about your own body and bodies like yours.
Where are the articles asking male athletes to discuss and compare their bodies against their competitors, and discuss which traits on the male form they find “attractive?” Why is what someone finds attractive in their competitors’ bodies a legitimate contribution to an article about the individual body image woes of athletes? Why don’t we see articles with Steph Curry talking about how big Lebron is, and that’s why he couldn’t out play him? Or do we write that off as ludicrous and awkward on its face? Do we publish comments from male athletes criticizing and comparing other men’s bodies? Or do we decide to skip that part because that’s “gay?”
Madison Keys, a 20-year-old American, was recently angered by a television show in which men discussed their picks for the most attractive female athletes. [source]
I suspect the “that’s gay” element is also why we don’t have men discussing their picks for the most attractive male athletes, either. I also suspect that something else is at play when we don’t have an all-lady cast discussing the attractiveness of male athletes on-air. It’s almost as if it’s clearly understood that those men are there to do a job, attractiveness be damned.
The absolute kicker here, however, is this:
Maria Sharapova, a slender, blond Russian who has been the highest-paid female athlete for more than a decade because of her lucrative endorsements, said she still wished she could be thinner.
“I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish,” she said, laughing.
[…] “I can’t handle lifting more than five pounds,” Sharapova said. “It’s just annoying, and it’s just too much hard work. And for my sport, I just feel like it’s unnecessary.”[source]
When I look at this quote, I immediately think back to the quote from the trainer who adamantly – and comfortably stated that they purposefully keep his trainee as the smallest in the top 10. They’re not angling to compete against or beat Serena. They’re angling for Sharapova-style endorsements. Endorsements that she pulls and maintains because of her tiny figure. Dare I say it, but Sharapova isn’t interested in dominating the sport as much as she’s interested in ensuring that the sport remains a part of her brand, keeping her brand relevant, and keeping her able to garner such high endorsement deals.
It takes strength to drive that ball with force across the court – why would an athlete admit with pride that she doesn’t strength train and “can’t handle lifting more than five pounds,” unless that athlete prides herself more on what she represents instead of what she strives to achieve?
According to ThinkProgress, even though Serena took home $11M in endorsements compared to Sharapova’s $22M in 2014, Serena took home another $11M in prize money to Sharapova’s $2.4M. Even with Serena’s sheer talent and dominance, why isn’t she getting the respect she deserves? Isn’t America a meritocracy? Don’t we only bestow benefits upon the ones who deserve them?
Of course this criticism isn’t new. Resident ESPN loudmouth and human hefty bag extraordinaire Jason Whitlock gleefully wrote back in 2009:
Seriously, how else can Serena fill out her size 16 shorts without grazing at her stall between matches?[…]
She’s chosen to smother some of [her “drop dead looks”] in an unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber, a byproduct of her unwillingness to commit to a training regimen and diet that would have her at the top of her game year-round.
Think about it. At 5-foot-9, 145 pounds, Serena would be unstoppable on the court, on the cover of every magazine still in circulation and downloaded on the Internet three times more often than Anna Kournikova.
Instead, Serena is arguably pushing 175 pounds, content playing hard only in the major tournaments, happy to be photographed on dates with pro athletes and proud to serve as a role model for women with oversized back packs. [source] [screenshot a] [screenshot b] [screenshot c]
Photos of Serena doing what tennis players do best – hitting fuzzy things with another thing across a net – are met with criticism of her “manliness.” Pictures of Serena displaying any emotion on the court – happiness, anger, frustration – are met with comments about her being an “ape” or any other unruly animal. Photos of Serena dressed up, out of season and off the court, garner criticism about everything. At this point, if I – a fellow tennis player – saw the constant attack on her body for merely training it to win, wouldn’t I want to avoid that at all costs, too? Would I be strong enough to withstand the biggest blob in sportscasting telling me that I need to lose 30lbs?
Serena’s right to train how she pleases shouldn’t need defending. It should be clear: athletes compete to win, they train to compete, and they build their bodies in a way that responds to that training.
No woman on that court is built like Serena, and yet… no woman can dominate the sport like she can. Her ability to work through her body image issues allows her to have the physique she needs to win. And, instead of universal celebration of her success, we get articles with women saying they’re not willing to sacrifice their “femininity,” therefore they cannot defeat her. She’s too strong, she can’t be defeated, therefore something is wrong with her – she’s giving up the thing they won’t, so she must be chided for it.
Serena deserves defending because, clearly, this is the compromise lady athletes have to make: we’ll bestow benefits upon you – like undeserved multi-million dollar endorsement deals – so long as you continue to uphold and adhere to our standards of beauty. That Serena’s only earning half of what her lesser competitor earns in endorsement deals proves it – the real game isn’t the one played on the court. It’s the one played with the public’s expectations: be “feminine,” be “girly,” be rewarded. It’s further proven in our ability to respect WNBA players – they’re chided for “not dunking” or any of the other athleticism we’ve grown accustomed to in the sport, but then they’re criticized for “not looking like women” and, therefore, being unworthy of attention.
Is this what these athletes have earned? Is this what they deserve? “Meritocracy,” indeed.
Defending Serena – a woman who is quite comfortable with her body – is, ultimately, about defending the right for women to train and compete just as unscrutinized and unbothered as men. They are not bikini models, they are not merely potential girlfriends, they are athletes. They deserve to be respected as such – not just by one another, but by their audience. And, as lovers of sport, we shouldn’t stand for any less.