(WOMENSENEWS)– The body shaming tennis champion Serena Williams constantly faces is a window to a world where other women of color live, too. Lesbian and bisexual women are also targets because they often dare to step outside of norms, eschewing traditional forms of femininity.
Recently, Williams has been accused of using steroids by David Frum, an editor at The Atlantic, and used by The New York Times to spark a conversation on body image among top female tennis players. In the past, sports writer Jason Whitlock has piled on with comments like: "I am not fundamentally opposed to junk in the trunk, although my preference is a stuffed onion over an oozing pumpkin" in referring to Williams’ derriere.
While we should be celebrating Williams’ sixth Wimbledon championship and her 21st grand slam title, instead we are forced to ponder what is too masculine for women, especially female athletes. In this, one of the world’s greatest athletes offers insight into how women navigate beauty norms, especially when the skin they’re in is not the feminine default.
The truth is many girls and women of color have been ostracized and denied opportunity and access because of a perception they are further away from the dominant beauty ideal. These themes are being tackled head on in "Advantageous," a recently released science-fiction movie streamed on Netflix. The movie focuses particularly on age, and the constant pursuit of women to look younger. Teen girls of all races are susceptible to this critique, too, as illustrated by The Body Project, where Joan Jacobs Brumberg shows how adolescent girls’ bodies have become projects.
Mental Gymnastics of Athletes
One wonders about the mental gymnastics of female athletes when hearing their thoughts on the ideal female body: Agnieszka Radwanska and her coach implied a womanly or feminine body was less muscular. "It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10," Radwanska’s coach, Tomasz Wiktorowski, told The New York Times. "Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman."
Meanwhile Andrea Petkovic, the No. 14th ranked player in the world, said in the same New York Times article she struggled with appearing muscular and the social pressure on women to fit into a strict box to meet feminine ideals.
To be sure, so much more is at stake here than hurt feelings or just a difference in opinion.
Lesbian and bisexual women who look more stereotypically masculine face a mix of verbal and physical sexual harassment. A survey by Stop Street Harassment acknowledges that people of color and low-income and LGBT people are disproportionately impacted by such harassment.
Punishment for female athletes may include harassment as well, but it could also extend to their wages. If a woman is stopping her body from becoming "too strong," she may not develop into the best athlete she can be. There is an unnecessary ceiling.
And this ceiling could depress the overall athleticism of women’s sports and impose financial penalties. If women are encouraged and expected to stay away from exploring and finding the best body type for a competing athlete, then we may be hampering competition and "watch-ability," decreasing a woman’s earning potential.
Remember, the U.S. Women’s National Team took home $2 million for winning the World Cup in soccer while the German men’s national team banked $35 million for their World Cup victory. More people just want to watch the men’s game, FIFA says, leading to the $576 million in prize money generated for the men’s tournament as opposed to the $15 million in the women’s tournament.
Williams’ wages are certainly being impacted. Why does Maria Sharapova out-earn Williams in endorsements? A muscular woman may not be as marketable especially when considering a woman who "looks like a man" can be perceived in a range of negative ways.
Female athletes often operate under the cloak of presumed homosexuality, and they are encouraged in subtle and not so subtle ways to reinforce a heterosexual identity and by extension their femininity to counteract this. Cue the skirts and makeup; out goes the muscle and brawn. Yes, perceptions and feelings toward LGBT people are changing, but female athletes are still encouraged to reject any notion of them being LGBT.
Surely, men and boys face their own hurdles with body image. However, the way women and girls experience body image is tied to denied access to public space whether in sports, work or politics simply for being women. Of course race, class and a range of other factors can impact a man’s ability to claim public spaces, but their gender is not the reason for any hurdles they may face.
Imagine a world where we wouldn’t have to waste time speculating on how Williams gets her muscle tone and whether she’s deemed good-looking enough. If all things were equal, we’d be discussing Williams’ great tennis skill and ability, and the historic moment ahead of us as she seeks her 22nd grand slam title at the coming U.S. Open, which would tie her for second all-time in grand slam titles among female tennis players.
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