Repeat after me: Athleticism is beauty. Athleticism is beauty. Athleticism is beauty. Athleticism is beauty…

Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, just won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon.

Again.

For the sixth time, actually.

That’s like, five times. And then again. For a total of six times.

six

Serena Williams is one of the great athletes of our time, and one of the greatest tennis players ever. But alongside the story of her win, what else does the New York Times– the paper of record—see fit to print? This story.

In this story ,“Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image with Ambition”, many of the world’s top women players interviewed said, in effect, that having the muscular world-class athletic bodies they have makes them feel “unfeminine”, as 14th-ranked Andrea Petkovic said.

“People say, ‘Oh, you’re so skinny, I always thought you were huge,’ ” she said. “And then I feel like there are 80 million people in Germany who think I’m a bodybuilder. Then, when they see me in person, they think I’m O.K.”

Heavy sigh.

Okay, let’s deconstruct this statement to see what’s going on here. Here are some assumptions I found:

  • Being skinny is OK (read minimally acceptable).
  • Being “huge” is bad.
  • Being perceived as a bodybuilder is bad.

Let us remind ourselves that this is coming from a woman whose tennis acumen is ranked 14th ON PLANET EARTH. Despite my intense racket-sports envy of her accomplishment, I feel both sympathy and frustration at what such comments likely accurately reflect about the culture that she navigates.  And this is the culture that we navigate, too.

Serena herself is affected by such assumptions. How can this be? I mean, glorious kick-ass-take-no-prisoners-forget-wearing-all-white-I-look-fabulous-in-orange-and-pink-on-center-court Serena? The woman who wore this at the French Open while firing a bullet serve?

serena

Serena Williams is now in position to be the 4th woman in history to win the Grand Slam of tennis in singles this year (The Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open).  By the way, there have only been three Grand Slam winners in men’s singles (two actually, as Rod Laver did it twice; also, my first tennis racket was a Rod Laver, but I digress…)

But this is what others are saying about her the very day she won Wimbledon:

Not all players have achieved Williams’s self-acceptance.

“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.

Shriver, who cited Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki as similarly powerfully built, believes Williams’s physique and confidence should serve as an example to others.

“The way Serena wears her body type I think is perfect,” Shriver said. “I think it’s wonderful, her pride.”

(taking deep breath)

Okay, let’s look at this more carefully– what assumptions lie beneath these statements?

  • Serena Williams’ body is one that requires a conscious attitude of self-acceptance, which suggests that it would otherwise be reasonable to expect her to be unaccepting of it.
  • Power in a woman’s build is in opposition to thinness– if you’re powerful, you’re not thin, and vice versa.
  • In most contexts, thin is better than powerful for women.
  • Even in professional sports, women with powerful bodies must acknowledge, justify, and defend those bodies, as well as deal with lack of acceptance by others.
  • Serena’s body type requires cultivating pride in a way that’s out of the ordinary, not automatic, but praiseworthy (albeit in a grudging and condescending way).

Note that these claims are made about a woman who wore this dress to the Oscars this year:

Screen Shot 2015-07-11 at 10.50.16 PM

I included this picture because this discourse about Serena’s body as being deviant, as

1) a woman’s body;

2) a professional athlete’s body;

3) an attractive woman’s body

is one of the many reasons why I’m glad this blog and this community exist.  We can celebrate Serena’s accomplishments and beauty in power and motion.  We can also celebrate ourselves in our own glorious athletic beauty, like this bunch of Kincardine tri- and duathletes.  Congratulations, and I look forward to reading all about it!

wpid-fb_img_1436651967018.jpg

About catherine w

I'm an analytic philosopher, retooled as a public health ethicist. I'm interested in heath behavior change, particularly around eating and activity, and how things other than knowledge affect our health decisions.I'm also a cyclist (road, off-road, commuter), squash player, x skier, occasional yoga-doer, hiker, swimmer and leisurely walker.

22 thoughts on “Repeat after me: Athleticism is beauty. Athleticism is beauty. Athleticism is beauty. Athleticism is beauty…

  1. cdaigle says:

    Great analysis Catherine!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Amy says:

    You are spot on with this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. stephcvet says:

    Wonderful post. I felt my little feminist face nodding in agreement with everything you wrote.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re right, but the other thing is the assumption that beauty/sexual attractiveness/fuckability should be anyone’s primary concern. To misquote someone I can’t remember, beauty is not a rent women owe for their space in the world. Serena is very beautiful, I think, but that is completely irrelevant to her ability and achievements as an athlete, her character and personality or her worth as a human being, and every time we respond to the critics by saying actually she is beautiful, we reinforce the belief that beauty matters.

    Liked by 4 people

    • catherine womack says:

      Absolutely! And in the NYT article, one of the coaches reinforces the “you have to be beautiful too” concern by saying about one of the players, “…because first of all she’s a woman.” Which is totally weird. Weren’t we talking about tennis here?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. 36views says:

    I must admit, whenever I see Serena W on TV the first thing that pops into my mind is ‘wow, she is so big, and strong’. Although I am conscious of doing it (and not meaning to) I do wish we weren’t programmed, against our will, to always notice women’s appearances first. The second thing I think is ‘gee, she is such a gracious winner’. That’s what I admire most about her, that she never takes her wins for granted even though she has done so, so many times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s normal for sighted people to notice appearance first, because we see people. The problem is when we think it’s the most important thing about a person, regardless of anything else, or even when we think it matters at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. quirkymuser says:

    Reblogged this on quirky musings from the front porch and commented:
    This is a great blog post!

    Like

  7. shalilah2002 says:

    Playing tennis and being so active is probably what keeps Serena’s shape.

    Like

  8. Catherine says:

    Every. Single. Woman. And. Every. Single. Person. On. This Earth. Has. Their. Own. Sense. Of. Beauty! Great post BTW! We’re all beautiful!

    Like

  9. blessingolapade says:

    Reblogged this on blessingtalks.

    Like

  10. Here’s a Ted Talk on body-type specialization in sports. This seems to be the winning theory for why athletes seem to be getting better. And it’s equally true of men and women. Why is Williams’ body noteworthy?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. joshmeltzer says:

    An interesting rewriting of the ny times article as if it were about a male football player. http://onehotmessalaska.blogspot.com/2015/07/if-new-york-times-wrote-about-tom-brady.html?m=1

    Like

  12. yvonnekli says:

    THANK YOU! Serena Williams is a brilliant athlete, full stop. She’s strong, powerful, and smart, which is why she plays so well. The fact that there’s as much media focus on her femininity, or supposed lack thereof, is disappointing. You were spot on about the self-acceptance thing as well (what is there not to accept about a healthy, strong body?) and I cannot express my gratitude to you for writing such a succinct and honest post.

    Like

  13. […] Repeat after me: Athleticism is beauty. Athleticism is beauty. Athleticism is beauty. Athleticism is… […]

    Like

  14. Thank you for this!! I’m an athlete as well and I must admit that I still struggle with accepting that I will never be ‘thin’ in the way that it is conventionally deemed attractive. I play squash (similar-ish to tennis) and so I have larger thighs than most, but like you say, it’s more a question of power and being physically toned for your specific sport

    Like

  15. nonstopariel says:

    Hello! I know I’m late to the party, but I just discovered this blog and this post was so helpful to me. Thank you so much for this. I compete in triathlons and teach self-defense and I struggle to accept my body. Its wonderful to know there are like minded people who are understand athletic bodies are beautiful too.

    Like

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