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|
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 email@example.com.