Friday, July 24, 2015

Stop Body Shaming Serena Williams

Amazing Serena
Professional tennis star Serena Williams is beyond compare. Yet tournament after tournament it feels like when she wins big, her incredible playing ability and achievements get diverted or deflected. It’s nothing new, but front and center this time is body shaming.

              After winning last week at Wimbledon, Serena was subjected once again to disrespectful remarks. The worst were on social media like Twitter where it’s easy to lob hate bombs. I’m talking vulgar stuff. It showed up in mainstream media too, though the rhetoric was more carefully worded.

              Most comments were centered on Serena’s race to be sure (she’s African American), but also her gender and body type. Hecklers and haters launched scores of taunts, barbs and criticisms. Instead of celebrating her exceptional physicality, there were references about her, “Looking like a man” and “Playing like a man.”

              Sportswriter Ben Rothenberg’s recent New York Times article, “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition” is telling, for a lot of reasons. In it, he attempts to examine the topic of body image in the context of women’s professional tennis. Unfortunately, the piece misfires. Instead it quickly devolves into a not so subtle reinforcement of the same tired sexist narrative that ultimately results in oppressive judgment of how women’s bodies should look.

              Perhaps the most glaring example of this in the story is embodied by this passage: “’It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,’ said Tomasz Wiktorowski, coach for tennis player Agnieszka Radwanska. ‘Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.’”

              “…she wants to be a woman.”

              This seems to infer that women who have or want to possess powerful, athletic bodies do not want or cannot be women. Sickening.

Caster Semenya -- all woman
              Not since Amélie Mauresmo, a former No. 1 player in 2004 on the women’s tour, has a tennis professional been forced to endure the kind of gender hating vitriol hurled at Serena. Such scrutiny happens in other sports as well.

              Take the woeful case of South African track star Caster Semenya. She made headlines around the world in 2009 when it was discovered she was coerced into undergoing gender tests before winning the 800 meters world title as an 18-year-old. Her crime? Being fast and not having “the right kind of look and body” for a woman. The media-fueled controversy nearly cost Semenya her career and forced her to sit out of competition for nearly a year.

              The Sports Illustrated “Swimsuit Issue” hasn’t helped matters over the years either. Launched in 1964, the annual pictorial of female swimsuit models is a mainstay of the publication, though not without criticism from several quarters. Among them conservative subscribers, sports purists, parents and feminists. The portrayal of women as thin waifs in that sports magazine over the years has done much to narrow the perception of what constitutes an “acceptable” female athlete’s body.

              In 2009, ESPN The Magazine launched its own annual “The Body Issue”. In it are pictorials of both male and female athletes that depict more diverse portrayals of the human body. Ironically, the best-selling version of the six debut covers was of, you guessed it, Serena Williams.

              At the root of this identity mayhem is a complex tapestry of issues that span sexism, homophobia and racism. The consequences of this plays out on and off the court.

              It comes as no surprise that as many product endorsements as Serena gets, Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova (tall, slim, white and blond) gets twice as many. According to one report, Sharapova received almost $22 million in endorsements last year. Compare that to $12 million for Serena. This despite Serena winning 21 Grand Slam titles versus four for Sharapova.

              Taking swipes at natural body types that don’t conform to media, fashion and modern cultural standards is injurious – psychologically, mentally and even physically. Instead of divisive shaming, let’s instead embrace and celebrate the vast diversity of what constitutes an athletic body.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Monday, July 13, 2015

Confederate Flag a Symbol Tattered by Contradictions

Sunset on a hurtful Southern symbol
It hardly seems real. The Confederate flag; an iconic symbol of the Old South has flown over the statehouse grounds of South Carolina for generations. It has finally come down. What does it mean for that state and for our country?

              Just a few days ago, the South Carolina House approved a bill to remove the Confederate flag from its perch on its own grounds. After more than 13 hours of debate, the House approved the Senate bill by more than a two-thirds margin. The bill then went to the desk of Republican Governor Nikki Haley, who readily signed the measure.

              Like all flags, the Confederate one is a symbol. Arguments over what it represents continues to rage. For some it signifies a Southern way of life that was romantic and gentile. For others, it embodies the proud lineage of relatives from generations past. For still others, the Confederate flag is a scourge – a despicable reminder of a part of the country that sought to preserve chattel slavery and spread the institution to the Western territories.

              Now that the flag is down, what’s changed? Not much apparently. The sublime nostalgia for Southern days gone by is still here. The patriotic memories of dearly departed ancestors who were Confederate soldiers remain strong. Racism and oppression still exist. Yet at least in one place, a very important place, a symbol representing that place and time has been removed. Good riddance.

Friendlier Southern symbol
              Symbols. They can characterize ideas. Ideals. There’s power in them, often a living force. And there’s a lot going on regarding the Confederate flag, in terms of its symbolism; the flag itself and from where it was recently removed.

              South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States of America in 1861. That move, followed by 10 other states and an attack on Ft. Sumter, plunged the country into a bitter Civil War. It was a conflict that killed from 625,000 to 850,000 human beings. From the North and South.

              Symbolism. For me, removal of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capitol was nearly as profound a symbol as Barack Obama being elected President. That’s because I always have considered that southern state to be ground zero for racism in our country. And now it’s gone.

              At the same time make no mistake: my home state of Michigan and all our other states – particularly the ones up north that historically have escaped more intense scrutiny – they are equally culpable when it comes to the harmful and enduring legacy of individual and institutional racism.

Symbol of hope
Back to Obama. His first election symbolized a growing tolerance, if not acceptance among some white people for black people. At least at the individual level. Politics aside, and that’s a big aside for many, the President brought with him a skill set, resume and other assets that would be the envy of anyone running for office. Harvard law degree, president of Harvard Law review, U.S. Senator, great communicator, social justice bend, wife Michelle Obama.

              Obama’s professional and personal pedigree made him palatable in a way no previous black presidential candidate was. In short, a significant symbol. When he first ran for president I didn’t buy it. Back then, I, along with others, considered his election bid a pipe dream. I was wrong.

              It’s the same regarding the likelihood of the Confederate flag ever being removed from the shadow of the South Carolina capitol. Wrong again. In the end most would agree it’s just one flag coming down in one place. However, it’s more than that. Its removal from this particular location at this particular time in history is a symbol of something greater: change. And healing.

 Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Size Matters in our Culture, and it’s Oppressive

What's wrong with this picture?
One of the most enduring forms of oppression targets persons considered overweight. This persecution is so culturally entrenched in society, that you can have a healthy body size and still carry unhealthy shame and guilt regarding your body size.

              I identify as “long and lean,” which means I enjoy advantages others do not. Unlike many possessing a greater body size, I have zero problems finding stores that sell a wide variety of clothes I can fit. I never worry about sharing space with others – on buses, planes, trains, automobiles, in theaters or classrooms. I also never wonder whether the person staring is judging me for my size.

              I wasn’t regularly teased about my weight, as a kid or adult. I can always watch TV, movies, surf the Internet and magazines and regularly see images of people my size who are depicted in a positive light. Folks close to my body type in media are never discussed in negative ways. In fact it’s rarely commented on at all.

              There’s more. If I haven’t eaten all day (or even if I have), I can order a “super-sized” meal and nobody will judge me or think much more than, “Boy, is he hungry.” That is, if they even notice my meal portions. In movies or on TV, my size is rarely, if ever, the butt of some joke. And if it is, there are a thousand other examples out there in which my size is considered favorable.

              In short, my experiences as a slim person are positively reinforced. As a result, I hardly think about my body size because it doesn't impact my day to day living.

              Contrast that with a person who is large. Either through no fault of their own (i.e., genetics, lack of access to good food or quality health care, illness, medication, etc.) or if they do voluntarily consume a lot of calories. All that stuff mentioned above is the opposite for them.

              I’m told by many who consider themselves overweight that not a day goes by when they're not reminded they're “fat,” “different,” “less than,” “unworthy.” That something is “wrong” with them. Every day, 24/7, 365 days a year. It can be a hurtful, stifling, unjust existence. Oppressive. And the messages are everywhere.

              I can't imagine what it feels like to be, or considered to be, overweight. What I do know is that our Culture of Slim as a standard is horrendous. It's also hypocritical. At the same time we're promoting slim-is-in, we're aggressively selling, serving and consuming high calorie food products. These foods are high in sugar, fat and salt – ingredients our nation has learned to covet. Check that: they are all ingredients that are scientifically proven to be addictive, physically and emotionally.

              The insidious thing about this is not just that it's occurring on a systematic level, though that in and of itself is morally criminal. The really low down and dirty part of it all is that most folks don't even realize this heinous form of oppression is happening. Instead most wrongly believe, “It’s the individual person’s problem; society isn’t to blame for what folks eat.”

              And by society, I don’t just mean you and me and our complicity regarding hurtful fat jokes. I’m talking food corporations, their advertising, marketing and PR muscle. I’m also casting my stink eye at our fashion industry. They project unrealistic images about what body sizes and types are beautiful (and which are not) via runway shows and media propaganda. It’s all centered on garments worn by models that only a small minority of people look like. Reality check: few women these days wear size zero, or are a 41-long with a 33” waist, if you're a man.

              Time to interrupt business as usual when it comes to fat phobia. One-size-fits-all just doesn’t work when it comes to human beings, no matter what media tells you. Or what you try to tell yourself.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at