Body shaming and concern trolling as policy: the Taylor Townsend experience

By MarthaFitat55

Taylor Townsend defeated Simona Halep, the Wimbledon champion and No. 4 seeded tennis player at the US Open in tennis yesterday. She’s the first woman to have done so since Serena Williams in 2008.

Image shows Taylor Townsend, a black woman wearing blue active wear, celebrating her tennis win.

The 23-year-old has more tennis today and it will be interesting to see how she does. For now though, this win is not only a triumph in terms of tennis, but it is also a triumph in terms of overcoming body shaming.

Back in 2012, Townsend was the number one under-16 ranked player in the US and the world. You would think this would mean she would get all kinds of support to grow professionally and athletically.

You would be wrong. As I was.

Back in 2012, the US Tennis Association (USTA) refused to provide financial support for competition travel to Townsend until she lost weight. Sports Illustrated has a detailed piece here. Reporter Courtney Nguyen wrote:

Taylor Townsend, a charming young girl who still wears her braces proudly and plays with ribbons in her hair, is still just that: a young girl. She is not the future of American tennis, she is not a policy and she is not an example. She’s just a kid playing a sport she loves and she’s pretty darn good at it. Her body is still developing, her self-esteem still ebbing and flowing, and the last thing she needs, not as a tennis prodigy but as an adolescent, is her own tennis federation telling her she’s physically deficient.

We live in a world — we’ve always lived in a world — where body image, particularly among young girls, is a lightning rod for mockery or bullying. We should be better than that. And as the organization charged with growing tennis, encouraging kids to play and making this sport as welcoming as possible, the USTA should strive to be better than that.

Nguyen quotes the Wall Street Journal who quotes the UTSA official Patrick McEnroe as saying “Our concern is her long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player. We have one goal in mind: For her to be playing in [Arthur Ashe Stadium] in the main draw and competing for major titles when it’s time. That’s how we make every decision, based on that.”

This is a perfect example of concern trolling. Townsend was denied training opportunities based on the UTSA’s flawed assumptions on size, strength and skill. Losing weight doesn’t make anyone better at anything. It’s practice and competition experience that leads to increased skill, stamina and motivation to win.

Body policing isn’t new to girls and women. We have also seen a consistent pattern of how black women athletes are also derided for not fitting the white norm. The controversy earlier this summer with Caster Semenya continues to simmer and will have far reaching consequences on women’s achievements in sport.

Yesterday Twitter lit up with posts reminding readers of what happened to Townsend in 2012. When Simone Manuel won gold twice at the Rio Olympics, people shared how black people weren’t allowed to swim in pools with white people.

That body shape management is a driver for policy and practice in the ITSA is appalling. I wonder what Townsend could have achieved earlier had she been given the opportunities to compete without such restrictions.

— Martha gets her fit on in a number of ways, and occasionally indulges in opinion-making for cardio impact.