Image Is Not Everything: Serena and Body-Shaming

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By Bill Simons

You’re out there by yourself, a lone figure in a modest outfit, playing for hours in front of thousands, and millions on TV.

Issues of body image are central in our culture and just below the surface in tennis. People—well, especially women—are assessed, sometimes brutally, on their bodies. Body-judging, which is so endemic and often obsessive, is an incredibly sensitive issue. Even Michelle Obama’s arms were recently criticized.

On the eve of Serena Williams’s Wimbledon final, the New York Times published a controversial story on body image in tennis.

For starters, the timing was not splendid. It was hardly like in 1990, when, right after Martina Navratilova won Wimbledon, Margaret Court said Martina wasn’t a good role model because it was “bad for kids to be exposed to homosexuality.” Still, on the eve of Serena’s historic slam, the Times’ piece focused on an athlete’s body, rather than on the incredible body of work of America’s most dominant athlete. Just months ago, the head of Russia’s tennis federation referred to Serena and Venus as “the Williams brothers” and said, “It’s frightening when you look at them.”

To his credit, the skilled freelance journalist Ben Rothenberg obtained assorted comments from numerous players, and many spoke of the beauty of big, powerful bodies. But there was little of the nuance, context and depth you would expect and need in a Times article on such a provocative topic.

A firestorm of criticism erupted. “Even the New York Times is Body-Shaming Serena Now,” read a Salon.com headline. Soon the Times published an extended apology in which Rothenberg said, “I should have challenged the norms rather than just stated them as a given.”

What leapt out in the piece were comments by Aga Radwanska’s coach Tomasz Wiktorowski, who said, “It’s our decision to keep [Aga] as the smallest player in the top 10 … because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.” Aga concurred, saying she cared about how she looked “because I’m a girl.”

So what is Serena, asked many.

Then there’s Maria Sharapova, who said it was “annoying” to lift anything more than five-pound weights. Donald Trump once said Maria beat Serena because Williams was intimidated by Sharapova’s supermodel good looks. The star, who embodies western society’s ideal image of beauty and makes $10 million more in endorsements than Serena, told the Times that she still wished she could be thinner. “I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish.”

Pat Griffin, a retired University of Massachusetts professor, told the Times that sacrificing your femininity is an “old narrative in women’s sports … so presenting Serena as some kind of freak, or animal-athlete, was appalling … [The article] didn’t get at the sexism and racism just under the surface, or take into account the not-so-distant history of the sport where … a lesbian star like Amelie Mauresmo was derisively referred to by an opponent as ‘half a man.’” Responding to a tweet, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling tweeted a picture of Serena in a shapely red dress and said, “‘She is built like a man?’ Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress—you’re an idiot.” Writer Deron Snyder said Serena is “simply too much for too many, who can’t get over the tone of her physique or skin, which are subliminally and intricately linked.”

Williams, who incredibly failed to win the ESPY for Female Athlete of the Year, once complained, “Everyone called me fat … Every paper, the headline was ‘Fat, fat, fat.’” But, she told the Times, “You really have to learn to accept … and love who you are. I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud … I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body.”

Some said the article was not that offensive. But MSNBC’S Melissa Harris-Perry was outraged, insisting that body-shaming leads to self-hatred. She said, “The impulse to publicly dissect black women and offer commentary on our bodies as somehow bizarre, unfeminine, grotesque, and only worthy of shock—never emulation—is a sickening holdover from 19th-century scientific racism … especially [for] women of color.

“We are not ashamed of Serena … We have watched her grow … We are thrilled that she … embraces the enormity of her body, talent and influence. We appreciate that she takes chances … stays connected to her community, and refuses to be defined by the hateful rantings of the Twitterverse, or the appalling commentary of much of mainstream media … We know that … sport is far more apt to reward these athletes if they fit into tiny, pretty boxes. We know that these women can see that Sharapova makes more in endorsements than Serena, even though Serena has defeated her 17 straight times. So, shame on you, New York Times, for being part of a system that rewards women for what their bodies look like, rather than what their bodies achieve.”