The New York Times recently ran an article about body image in female athletes. Its title: “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition“.
I hated it from the start. I know a lot of female athletes, and I can’t think of a discussion I have ever had with any of them about balancing body image with ambition. Do they have ambition? Yes. Do they have issues with body image? Sometimes. But never have I heard an elite athlete say that they were not doing x thing that would probably make them more competitive, because it would make them feel less attractive or less feminine. Ambition and insecurity can coexist. After all, humans are complex.
The article got a lot of hate immediately, mostly because it focused particularly on Serena Williams. Williams is the greatest female player currently on tour, and likely of all time. She’s also incredibly strong. Throughout her career, people have labeled her as a big scary black woman. I am not actually a huge Serena fan, but regardless of whether you are a fangirl or not, it’s plain to see that the racism she has faced is atrocious.
(And besides, she’s not that big. Look at a picture of her off the tennis court and see if you can even tell what all the fuss is about.)
I’m not going to talk about how race was featured in the most recent NYT article. Others have done that much more intelligently and eloquently than I possibly could. Here’s a few examples: Huffington Post; A Tribe Called News; The Daily Beast; I am sure there are other better essays, too.
At first, I couldn’t even articulate why the article disgusted me so much, but the general reason was that I thought it was extremely unfair and disrespectful of female athletes. An article about conforming to conventional standards of attractiveness would very seldom be written about male athletes.
After mulling it over, I’ve come up with some more concrete and specific reasons that I was so enraged by the author’s treatment of female athletes. Here’s a rundown.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All. First of all, the article implies that any female tennis player could have a body like Serena’s if she wanted to. That isn’t true… at least not without performance-enhancing drugs. Some of us put on weight and muscle more easily, while others do not.
This is not to say that Serena didn’t achieve her physique by a lot of hard work (although she’s quoted as saying that it is simply her body type, and she doesn’t lift weights). But for some people – men and women, not just white female tennis players! – a body like that would be difficult if not impossible to achieve naturally, without being a full-time job requiring major cuts to other training time, and might even result in injury. Not to mention, making drastic changes to one’s body requires parallel changes in technique/skill at the same time in order to be able to take advantage of added power.
Furthermore, it might not even be a good idea.
There is more than one way to be an excellent athlete, more than one body type you can have. I read and loved David Epstein’s book The Sports Gene, and in it he writes about how certain length ratios or body attributes are more or less required to be the best at certain sports. He’s not wrong.
And yet… take a look at this image, from the women’s 800 meter run at the 2012 London Olympics. None of these women have a lot of fat on their bodies. The are all lean, but with varying amounts of muscle.
I saw at least one person on twitter draw a parallel to my sport, cross-country skiing. One commenter said that in multiple sports women are now winning “with more strength” and showed a picture of Marit Bjørgen. Yep, she’s strong. But the second-best woman in the world, Therese Johaug, is tiny. Muscular, but much tinier. And some days, she kicks Marit’s ass. Here’s a picture of them running together; here’s a picture of them skiing together. Nobody’s saying that it’s impossible to be the best skier without having Bjørgen’s body, or that Johaug is a copout for not trying.
Like Williams, Bjørgen is not as big as she’s made out to be. Having met her in person, she’s still small – something that people lose track of when watching sports on television because the focus is always to fill the same, making tall and short people sometimes seem the same size. I bet she weighs less than I do.
Agnieszka Radwanska’s coach said in the NYT article that “It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10.” That may very well be because her play is adapted to being light. She’s one of the ten best tennis players in the world, right? Should we really be questioning her decisions about her body composition? It obviously works!
Correlation, Not Causation. I’m impressed that the author got as many top athletes to talk, on the record, about their insecurities with their bodies. I remember another article published in NYT, at the Sochi Olympics, about biathlon’s penalty loop. I thought it was a great article. It had a different author, but I imagine the strategy was the same: go to a lot of top athletes and ask them the same relatively short set of questions about a single topic. See what interesting responses you get.
I’m not surprised that female athletes have body image challenges. Every woman does. The standards we are held to by the media, advertising, and entertainment industries are ridiculous. It’s hard not to end up ashamed of some part(s) of your body.
But just because some of the women said this much, does not mean that the reason they are not bigger and bulkier is in fact because of those insecurities. For instance: Maria Sharapova, who was quoted as saying she doesn’t like the gym and doesn’t want to be bigger, also said that “for my sport, I just feel like it’s unnecessary.”
Sharapova is currently the second-ranked woman on the tennis tour. She has multiple Grand Slam victories. She talks about wanting to be slim and wishing she had less cellulite; she also talks about how it’s not necessary for her to gain more muscle for competition. Why focus only on the former? Why not also the latter?
In fact, the only person in the article quoted as directly linking weight/muscle with femininity is Radwanska’s coach, who said that he wants to keep Radwanska “a woman”. Ouch.
It wasn’t Radwanska herself who said it. No, Radwanska noted that gaining muscle might hurt her speed, and anyway that would be tough to do: “I also have the genes where I don’t know what I have to do to get bigger, because it’s just not going anywhere.”
So, did the players even make this connection between wanting to be feminine and being unable to beat Serena? Or did the author take quotes about body image, and tie them into a piece about how nobody is trying to be like Serena? I am genuinely curious what the reaction of the quoted athletes is to this piece, and whether they feel like they were misrepresented.
And, also, the newspaper didn’t treat these insecurities with very much respect. A German player,, confided that she hates seeing photos of herself hitting two-handed backhands because she thinks her arms look so sinewy and grotesque. The NYT helpfully printed just such a photo below the quote.
(Petkovic was not quoted as saying anything about whether she is still trying to add muscle or not, and if not, why not. She only commented on her current body image and insecurities.)
The Steroid Era, And The Current Era. This is really a side note but… the article seems to frame Serena’s body as something new and crazy in women’s sports, that other women are just too scared to emulate. Newsflash: we have seen big, muscle-bound women before. It was called the steroid era. Does nobody remember the East Germans? The Soviets? Heck, the Americans? Then, stronger anti-doping policy and improved testing came along. Athletes slimmed down again to some extent.
But only to some extent. Currently many track and field athletes, of all races and ethnicities, are bulked up. In some cases (maybe in a lot of cases, depending on how cynical you are) this is because of doping. In some cases it’s because of hard work. Serena is not the only successful female athlete out there with a lot of muscle. She’s not an alien, she’s not a revelation (well, she’s a revelation on the tennis court though!). Why are we talking about this again?
Disrespect for Serena’s Other Strengths. This ties more into the racism issues that have been brought up around this article, but it’s worth noting that it’s not merely muscle that wins Williams titles. It’s her tennis game. She has had periods where she is less fit; typically she does not win as consistently then. Her fitness, skills, and, perhaps above all, her incredible mental strength, also power her to wins. A physically strong Serena without the mental edge doesn’t win.
Body is not the only thing that makes an athlete. Just because people like to ogle women’s bodies, let’s not forget that when we talk about female athletes. Women have to have the complete package to the same extent that male athletes do.
Lack of Dedication. Finally, and perhaps this is where I feel female athletes were most disrespected, by framing the issue in this way – that any female athlete could achieve Serena’s body type if she wanted, but most choose not to – it paints those “other” athletes as less dedicated or less hard-working. They are skipping gym time because they don’t want to be too muscle-bound, and the author implies that they are lazy. There’s an unflattering quote from Maria Sharapova saying that she hates lifting and it’s hard work.
But time in the gym is not the only kind of training there is. I can’t speak for every single athlete, of course, but I’m certain that most of the women quoted, and in fact most on the women’s tennis tour, train just as much and just as hard as Serena. They just might not do it in the gym. There are multiple ways to get good. Some might do more cardio work; others speed workouts or agility and footwork; still others might spend even more hours on court perfecting their skills.
Writing that they choose not to lift weights because they want to remain feminine is not only wrong for all of the reasons listed above, but makes women seem lazy instead of pointing out that rather than going to the spa in that extra time, they likely sink it into some other form of training.
Wrapping up… Back to the issue of why we are even talking about female athletes’ bodies. The NYT editorial staff backpedaled the article hard, with an opinion piece by the public editor, Margaret Sullivan, stating that she was concerned with the piece.
It contained this nugget:
“Well aware of the criticism, Mr. Stallman said he still found the topic worthwhile: ‘In covering sports, we can’t not write about women’s bodies.’ And, he said, male athletes come in for scrutiny, too, citing a front-page article just last week on Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon, focused on his 285-pound body, up about 100 pounds from 1997 when he joined the major leagues.”
Um…. two things here. Is it unfortunate that Colón (and speaking of being sensitive, there NYT, I added the accent back on his name for you) is being shamed for being a large man on the front page of a newspaper? Yes. If Colón is good at baseball, then his weight shouldn’t matter to his team. And outside of people who are paying him a salary to be an excellent athlete, it shouldn’t matter to the universe in general if Colón is a gaining weight.
But… weighing 285 pounds is a little different than being Serena Williams, who is an extremely cut, lean, muscular woman. Criticizing a baseball player for being fat when, actually, he is fat (there, I said it) is totally different than calling a lean, muscular athlete “too big”.
And furthermore, the Colon article is an outlier. Women’s bodies face far more scrutiny and discussion in the sports media than men’s bodies do. Citing one article about Bartolo Colón does not change that.
And secondly, oh really? We can’t not write about women’s bodies? Is that so?
I revisited the article that the NYT wrote about the Women’s World Cup final: the most-watched soccer game, men’s or women’s, ever in the United States, and likely one of the top 30 or so most-watched sporting events of the year. So, a big deal.
It did not contain a single description of the bodies of any of the U.S. or Japanese players. (It did contain a reference to the iconic Brandi Chastain photo from the 1999 World Cup).
Instead, it described what those bodies did. One body sliced a shot, ran onto a pass, and launched a shot. Another backpedaled and reached.
This is how we should talk about female athletes’ bodies.