The NY Times Asked A Bunch Of White Female Tennis Players About Serena Williams’ Body

I’m by no means an actual tennis aficionado, but I love any and all displays of women proving how strong and powerful and bad ass they are, and Serena Williams exemplifies all those attributes and then some. Tomorrow, Williams is vying for the title at Wimbleton Wimbledon, and if she pulls it off, she’ll have her second career Grand Slam. She is, according to Newsweek, the world’s most dominant athlete. So naturally, The New York Times decided the best way to celebrate Williams’ tremendous physicality and talent was by asking a bunch of her white competitors to weigh in on her body and how it juxtaposes with how they feel about their own.

Now, I understand that staying fit is a priority for all athletes, regardless of gender, and that female athletes especially are not immune to the body image issues that plague many women. I don’t so much have a problem with the Times talking to female tennis players about how they balance their pursuit of athletic greatness and the never-ending societal pressure to be thin and pretty and feminine. What I do take issue with is the way this piece positions Serena Williams as this big, meaty, muscular OTHER, standing in stark contrast to her daintier competitors, who literally hem and haw over whether adding more muscle tone might give them more of an edge, and whether that edge will be worth sacrificing some of their womanhood:

“It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” said Tomasz Wiktorowski, the coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, who is listed at 5 feet 8 and 123 pounds. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”

“Of course I care about that as well, because I’m a girl,” Radwanska said. “But 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.”

She added: “Serena is strong and powerful, and that’s the way she is playing. I wish I would win 20 Grand Slams like her, but I don’t know if I would play better tennis if I looked like her.”

And then there’s Maria Sharapova, who just lost to Williams for the 17th straight time, having not seen a victory against her in 11 years:

“I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish,” she said, laughing.

Sharapova said she avoided weights in her training, instead focusing on stretching and preventive exercises, which she believes are more beneficial for tennis than adding muscle.

“I can’t handle lifting more than five pounds,” Sharapova said. “It’s just annoying, and it’s just too much hard work. And for my sport, I just feel like it’s unnecessary.”

Okay, girl. I’m sorry, but how can you not laugh at that?

The Times is right when they note that Williams “has been gawked at, mocked and celebrated throughout her career,” though I would add that the mocking/gawking has come mostly from misogynists and racists who can’t handle the thought of a strong, powerful, unapologetic Black woman dominating on the court, and they can fuck off forever. And I appreciate that the overall tone of the Times’ piece is one that celebrates her body for all that it can do, while her competitors fret over what their bodies look like.

Serena Williams' Article A "Missed Opportunity"
The NY Times' Public Editor responded to the controversy today.

But there’s something very squicky to me about asking a bunch of white women, who play in a predominantly white sport, to weigh in on the way a Black woman’s body looks, even if that feedback is mostly “positive.” There are unacknowledged racial undertones to that query, for starters, but asking the question also gives a certain amount of credence to the opposite, negative point of view.

For example, there’s nothing inherently wrong with former tennis player Pam Shriver saying, “The way Serena wears her body type I think is perfect. I think it’s wonderful, her pride,” but the way the piece is framed hints at a certain amount of surprise and admiration that Serena is confident in the way she looks. If the Times had written this piece without putting Williams’ body at the center of it, and just focused on how these individual players, including Williams, dealt with that pressure, there would be no issue for me.

As for Williams? After struggling with some body image issues herself, these days, she’s perfectly fine with how she looks, thankyouverymuch:

“I realized that you really have to learn to accept who you are and love who you are. I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me.”

Damn right it does. [NY Times]