“It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10. Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”
– Tomasz Wiktorowski, coach of Agnieszka Radwanska (source)
When I first read the NY Times article on women’s tennis star Serena Williams and her fellow competitors I was pissed off. How can such a huge publication make this kind of error by publishing a body shaming piece on elite athletes? I was mad at so many people! (How can you not be mad after reading the above quote.)
It didn’t occur to me until today that my anger might be misplaced. There was clearly enough content to build a well quoted article and enough people to read and react; maybe I needed to be looking more closely at why this article was written. In a follow up article, the author Ben Rothenberg, is quoted, “‘I wanted it to be a conversation starter,’ … ‘But I should have challenged the norms rather than just stated them as a given.'” It was a conversation starter, albeit, not the conversation he thought (I imagine). In all honesty, I think by writing this article he might have done more good than bad; hear me out.
A national platform for a personal topic
The real problem is the athletes quoted in the article are making their body image issues a national topic instead of a personal topic while perpetuating the idea that it’s okay to have such degrading and shameful views of themselves and others. (Please note: not all the athletes mentioned in the article had these views; I’m speaking solely of the athletes who voiced negative views regarding their physique.) They talk about how they don’t want to be muscular, equating muscles to masculinity and how they desire to continue looking like a woman. What does that even mean?!
Let’s be clear: I don’t have an issue if someone feels their best when they are less muscular (or more muscular) – the issue is when there’s a judgement on their body and saying that it’s fill-in-the-blank-with-a-negative-term and that everyone else should strive to look similar and if they don’t then they are fill-in-the-blank-with-another-negative-term.
So, how can we as a culture move forward from collective body shaming when, as individuals, we continue to have those thoughts?
Jill Coleman, of JillFit wrote in her newsletter,
Saying it’s society’s fault that we are self-conscious about our bodies is a copout. It’s lazy.
Isn’t that exactly what we’re doing with the reactions of this article? It’s everyone else’s fault that we have a body image epidemic. “I don’t want to look muscular because that’s masculine.” “I can’t wear a bikini because people will judge me.” “I never wear shorts because my thighs have cellulite.” It pretty much boils down to saying “It’s your fault I think I’m fat”. Where’s the ownership in that?
I’m not here to say that society doesn’t have it’s own issue with women’s bodies because it does, but it’s futile to determine which came first – women’s body issues or societies issues with women’s bodies. Or, to blame the NY Times for running a piece about women’s bodies saying that it shouldn’t even be a story. It is a story because we make it a story.
To create change, we need to start with something that we can change – ourselves. We need to 1. accept and love our own self and 2. not talk about someone else’s body.
“It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores”
All of this reminds me of a quote from Mean Girls:
…you all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores. (source)
We get upset with pieces like the NY Times article, but think it’s ok for us to body shame ourselves and others on a not-so-national scale? Think back to a time when you looked at another woman and thought or said something nasty about the way she looked (hint: that woman you’re looking at could be you). I’m sure it wasn’t long ago. The shaming is so deep in our culture because it’s so deep in ourselves. It makes it “ok” to write a piece like the NY Times article and it makes it acceptable for the athletes who deal with body image issues to openly talk about it like it’s not an issue.
Take it from Serena Williams: “…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…'”(source). She gets it.
It’s much harder work to get the body you think you want, than to love the body you already have. The body you think you want is always 5 pounds or a dress size away. It’s a trap. Work on loving the body you have and you’ll already have the body you want.
By publishing the article, the NY Times got me (and hopefully others) to really analyze the body shaming problem and how pervasive it is in ourselves and culture. It would be a disservice to only be mad that the article was written in the first place instead of taking some ownership that we “allowed” the article to be written. We can’t forget the athletes who have these body images and gave quotes for the story. Let’s be productive and use this time to reflect on how we can help change body shaming to body loving on a personal scale that will permeate to a global scale.