This post will examine the relationship between the body, gender, race and identity as they relate to the nature of being a Black woman within the context of professional sports. The blog will address the rampant media and public sphere scrutiny that Black female athletes are often subjected to regarding their body types and appearance. This scrutiny is in direct contrast with recent sports industry trend in which an increasingly emerging cultural acceptance for strong women is projected (Heywood & Dworkin, 2003, pg. 35). The post will also outline several examples of body and appearance shaming directed at Black female athletes in the professional tennis industry. With reference to specific examples and mainstream media representations of Black female identity, the blog will explain the problematic nature of these criticisms as they relate to the formation of Black female self-concept. The blog will attempt to answer the following research questions: How do Black female athletes view their athletic bodies in light of body-shaming trends within the professional sports industry? How do these women perceive their identities in light of the hyper-masculinizing body and appearance criticisms they continue to face in sports? And why are Black female athletes subject to such intense scrutiny of their aesthetic value when they compete in professional sports? Ultimately, this topic seeks to unearth the consequences of scrutinizing Black female athletes’ appearance on the manner in which they perceive themselves as well as how others perceive and subsequently treat them.
Despite being the one of the top tennis players of all-time, Serena Williams’ experience within the professional sports landscape is undeniably influenced by the fact that in addition to being a mom, sister, daughter and wife, she is a Black woman. At several points throughout her career, Williams has alluded to the fact that she is treated much differently than her non-Black counterparts in the world of professional tennis. More specifically, Williams is often the subject of aesthetic-related scrutiny of her body and overall physical appearance. For example, in July 2015, famed author JK Rowling came to Serena’s defence on Twitter after a user tweeted that Serena’s success is attributable to the fact that “she’s built like a man”. This demonstrates the extent to which members of the public engage in derogatory body-shaming of the world’s most successful female tennis player. Similarly, a New York Times article entitled “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition” that was circulated during the Summer 2015 Wimbledon tournament, consisted of firsthand commentary from several of Serena’s top competitors in which they expressed a collective and problematic desire to “not look manly like Serena” (Rothenberg, 2015, n.p.). These incidents highlight the racist, sexist and transphobic scrutiny to which Williams and other Black female athletes are subjected as a result of their athletic Black bodies.
Similarly, after Williams became injured and underwent a corrective surgery procedure in 2003, she dropped from number 1 to approximately 200 in the world tennis rankings. During that time, Williams temporarily gained a moderate amount of weight yet the media responded with reports claiming she was “unfit” and “lazy” (US Weekly, 2017, n.p.). She was essentially fat-shamed by the international media community. This is reflective of larger societal trends which indiscriminately brand Black women’s naturally curvy body types as deviant as a result of their departure from mainstream body image norms in which thinness is widely projected to be the ideal standard of beauty (Carter-Francique et al., 2016, pg. 14).
In other instances, high-ranking officials within the professional tennis industry are perpetrators of the aforementioned body-shaming. For example, in 2015 Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev was fined $25,000 and was banned from carrying out all official duties for one year as a consequence of highly distasteful comments he made on a Russian television show in which he likened the Williams sisters to men by referring to them as “the Williams Brothers”. This incident is a furtherance of trends in which “Black athletes have seen their gender performance doubly problematized” (Sloop, 2012, pg. 85). It also demonstrates the extent to which the sports industry perpetuates racist notions that black women are hypermasculine and unattractive. Unfortunately, “these stereotypes continue today and are a contributing factor in why Black women are routed to track and field” (Tryce & Brooks, 2010, pg. 250).
Despite the aforementioned instances of body-shaming and scrutiny that have been directed towards her, in other contexts Serena’s body type is lauded as being the unattainable standard of attractiveness that Black women should aspire to. For instance, in Kanye West’s famed hit Gold Digger, he raps “…my psychic told me she gonna have an ass like Serena” (Genius, n.d., n.p.). Similarly, in 2 Chainz’ song I Feel Good, the rapper sings “I had a dream I seen Serena playin’ tennis naked” (Genius, n.d., n.p.). These lyrics demonstrate the extent to which Serena Williams’ body is subject to sexual objectification when it is not being shamed. Furthermore, they are in alignment with historically pervasive media depictions and social attitudes in which Black women are perceived as sexual beings first and foremost, and as autonomous individuals as an afterthought (Townsend et al., 2010, pg 276).
In an open letter that the tennis player penned to her mother after the birth of her daughter Alexis Jr. late last year she lamented that she didn’t know how she’d react if her daughter was subjected to the same body-shaming treatment that she has been (Williams, 2017, n.p.). However, in spite of the adversity she faces on and off the court, it is clear that going forward Williams will not be silenced and intends to remain true to the essence of who she is: a Black woman. In her own words: “I am proud that we were able to show them what some women look like. We don’t all look the same. We are curvy, strong, muscular, tall, small, just to name a few, and all the same: we are women and proud!” (Williams, 2017, n.p.).
Taylor Townsend is an African American professional tennis player who became the first American to hold the no.1 junior female ranking in almost 30 years. In 2012, she won the Australian Open girls’ singles tournament and the junior Wimbledon doubles champion. Despite her accolades and achievements, Taylor has not been immune to the body-shaming and misogynoir that is experienced by Black female athletes throughout the professional sports industry. According to pro-Black activists Moya and Trudy Bailey, the term “misogynoir” describes the anti-Black racist misogyny that Black women experience (Bailey et al., 2018, n.p.).
In September 2012 the US Tennis Association (USTA) cut funding to Taylor’s training program until she “got in better shape” (Fleming, 2012, n.p.). The association was adamant that it would not pay for Taylor’s trip to New York City for the 2013 US Open and said that it would not fund any other future tournament appearances unless she lost weight (Sports Illustrated). The debacle was worsened by the fact that when it was questioned as to the body weight and fitness metrics which it wanted Taylor to achieve, the national tennis authority was unable to provide Taylor’s mother, coaches or trainers with any specific information. Interestingly, the USTA’s player development manager justified the move by saying “our concern is her long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player” (Sports Illustrated, 2012). Ultimately, in this instance the USTA publicly fat-shamed its best junior athlete. However, if Serena Williams’ world-class performance at top tennis tournaments despite her curvy frame is any indication, Taylor Townsend’s weight should have been of no major concern for the USTA.
Furthermore, the USTA needs to consider the ramifications of its actions in so far as their influence on the sporting experiences and body images of young Black girls everywhere. I would argue that by fat-shaming Taylor, the organization sent a simultaneous message to Black women and girls that their naturally curvy bodies do not belong in world of professional tennis. Especially because studies have shown that there is a strong correlation between sports media exposure and body image perceptions amongst adolescents (Harrison & Frederickson, 2006, pg. 2). The ramifications of these findings mean that high-performance female athletes may be more likely to engage in disordered eating practices as a result of the constant scrutiny of their gendered bodies by patriarchal institutions (De Bruin et al., 2011, pg. 206). In light of the media coverage of the aforementioned incident, what we must ask ourselves is: just how many aspiring Black female tennis players (of all ages) witnessed the USTA’s handling of the Taylor Townsend weight loss debacle and subsequently decided that tennis was no longer the sport for them? In my opinion, the real tragedy lies in the aforementioned question’s answer.
In conclusion, the experience of Black female professional tennis players sits at the intersection of race and gender in sports. Ultimately, as demonstrated by the examples discussed in this blog post, in addition to the racism and sexism which they must overcome in order to compete, professional Black female athletes are often problematically subjected to misogynoiristic practices of body-shaming and aesthetic-policing at the hands of spectators, sports media personnel, fellow athletes, athletic oversight bodies and even their coaches.
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