Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, just won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon.
For the sixth time, actually.
That’s like, five times. And then again. For a total of six times.
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.”
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 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:
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!