Dear Serena

28 Jul, 2015

I’m rooting for you to continue your amazing career, set new records, and inhabit your place as one of the world’s greatest athletes for a long time to come! As a tennis fan, I can only marvel at what you’ve accomplished and the fact that you are still going — stronger than ever — this far into your career.

I’m angry and sad to see the continuation of the racist and sexist coverage you receive. It hurts professional athletes and aspiring young athletes like my 12-year-old niece. As a hockey player, she can relax in a uniform that obscures her body and focus on her skating and puck handling. It took her years to be comfortable enough with her body that she could take up dance and wear a leotard and tights. I’m excited that she now dances and plays hockey with equal enthusiasm.

If I am sick of how much time and space the media and fans devote to your looks; I can’t even imagine what it is like for you to encounter such body policing and misogynoir. This kind of cruelty is also directed at other women athletes, especially for women of color. Misty Copeland, ballet dancer, faces similar scrutiny and critique.

People, including tennis players that are women, come in all shapes and sizes, both before and after they spend the kind of rigorous training time necessary to perform at the top of their sport. So no matter the level of training, or choice of training methods, no one person will look like another. We can take note of the men’s side of tennis to see that very clearly. Nadal looks different from Djokovic who looks different than Federer who looks different from Murray. Top players all of them, who are famous for intense training regimens, and each of them unique in build.

No one talks about any player being more “manly” than another because of how bodies evolve differently with training. People don’t speculate, and surely don’t ask the players on the men’s side, if the size of their gluteus maximus and hamstrings make them feel attractive. Instead, they talk about which player trains harder, who has more stamina, and the implications for winning. Their resulting look is irrelevant; their result on the court is what counts. Negative judgment is reserved for those who aren’t willing to work to their max potential.

On the other hand, the NY Times piece, Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition quotes numerous women’s tour players as acknowledging their struggles with self image and weight, muscles, and presenting as feminine. Though some players had no problem with training hard and not focusing on looks, some players were basically saying, “if the price of winning is having big muscles, and looking like Serena, then no thank you.” We can observe that they have internalized a standard of beauty whereby attaining a muscular, athletic physique comes with a price they seem unwilling to pay – that of looking “masculine” — whatever that might mean to them. The undertones of racism and the distance they want to put between themselves and a stellar, strong, black athlete is offensive. It’s not ok. I stand with you against those beliefs.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says its not all about racism, but the ultimately harmful ideals women are asked to live up to as they intersect with racism. “Some of the body shaming of athletic black women is definitely a racist rejection of black women’s bodies that don’t conform to the traditional body shapes of white athletes and dancers. No one questions the beauty of black actresses such as Kerry Washington (Scandal) or Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) because they fit the lithe image perpetuated by women’s fashion magazines. The body shaming of Williams and Copeland is partly because they don’t fit the Western ideal of femininity. But another cause is our disrespectful ideal of the feminine body in general. The bigger issue here is the public pressure regarding femininity, especially among our athletes. It’s a misogynist idea that is detrimental to professional women athletes and to all the young girls who look up to these women as role models because it can stifle their drive to excellence, not only on the playing field, but in other aspects of life.”

The NY Times article was insulting to you and also managed to make other players seem shallow. But there is a lot at stake for people in the public eye. I can’t forget that many suffer greatly because they don’t conform to (artificial, constructed) gender standards in looks, identity, or self-presentation. Real consequences to non-conformance include physical danger, emotional harm, loss of economic opportunities, and more. So they get to choose, for personal reasons, how they balance performance and looks. It just sucks when White and European players, some who might even be your friends on tour, talk about your body with language that reeks of racism and transphobia or stuff towels inside their shirt and skirt to mock your body for laughs.

Anyway, just wanted to say good luck at the U.S Open. I hope none of this stands in your way or distracts you from doing what you love and achieving your dreams.

Karen

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