I wish this was fiction. Or a joke. Or a bad dream.
Instead, it’s a disturbing signpost that indicates where we are in 2015.
Two decades and 21 Grand Slam titles after her pro debut – with 49 other singles titles, 700-plus matches won and $72.6 million in prize money to her credit – Serena Williams STILL faces criticism for breaching tennis’ stereotypical standards.
She’s too black, too strong. Too big, too loud. Too masculine, too volatile.
She’s simply too much for too many, who can’t get over the tone of her physique or skin, which are subliminally and intricately linked. The connection helps explain why muscular tennis stars such as Martina Navratilova and Samantha Stosur haven’t been scorned or shamed for their bodies nearly as much.
After instances over the years in which Williams has been referred to as a “gorilla” and “savage,” a recent New York Times article provides the latest example.
The reporter wrote about Williams’ “large biceps and mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for year. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.”
The Women’s Tennis Association lists Williams at 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds. The eye test reveals that concerning fat, she has very little. But opponents could choose to be as big, strong, fast, nimble and limber, they’d just rather not?
“It’s our decision to keep (No.7-ranked Agnieszka Radwanska) the smallest player in the top 10,” coach Tomasz Wiktorowski told the Times of his 5-8, 123-pound pupil. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”
Wiktorowski sounds almost as ignorant as Twitter troll @diegtristan8, who last week Tweeted at J.K Rowling: “Ironic that main reason for her success is that she is built like a man.”
The author of Harry Potter responded, attaching a photo of a curvaceous Williams in pumps and form-fitting hot red: “Yeah my husband looks just like this in a dress. You’re an idiot.”
Last year, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation referred to Serena and Venus as “the Williams brothers.” In 2012, Caroline Wozniacki stuffed her top and skirt to imitate Williams during an exhibition match against Maria Sharapova. Andy Roddick and Novak Djokovic have also gone the towels-inside-shirt route for cheap laughs.
Contrary to Andre Agassi’s popular ad campaign for Canon, image isn’t everything. But image can have disastrous effects on the marginalized, including African-Americans and women, in general. The more they’re taught that they don’t fit the mainstream’s image, the more damage to their sense of worth.
No.14-ranked Andrea Petkovic told the Times that she hates pictures of herself hitting two-handed backhands because that when her arm muscles bulge the most.
“I just feel unfeminine,” she said. “It’s probably that I’m self-conscious about what people might say. It’s stupid, but it’s insecuritites that every woman has, I think. I definitely have them and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I would love to be a confident player that is proud of her body.”
Radwanska also confessed that thoughts of performance with a different build competes with how she might look.
“Of course I care about that as well,” she said, “because I’m a girl.”
If Petkovic and Radwanska feel like that as young white women who conform to societal norms for beauty and femininity in every way, imagine the struggle Williams faced and the self-doubts she overcame to become the self-assured champion she is today.
“I don’t touch a weight, because I’m already super fit and super cut, and if I even look at weights, I get bigger,” Williams told the Times. “For years I’ve only done Thera-Bands and things like that, because that’s kind of how I felt. But then 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. I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body.”
Athleticism and physicality have been made uncomfortable for her in ways that, say, LeBron James doesn’t have to deal with.
Then again, we’re not far from the era where athletes like James were considered all brawn, no brains.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Williams’ body, which deserves neither shaming nor scorning. It’s just one aspect of the total package that makes her, arguably, the greatest women’s tennis player of all time.
Besides, lots of women pay serious money in attempts to make their bodies more like hers.
Haters gonna hate.