“It's kind of a catch-22: Strength in women isn't appreciated, and vulnerability in women isn't appreciated. It's like, 'What the hell do you do?' What you do is you don't allow anyone to dictate who you are.” – Actress Jada Pinkett Smith
On Saturday, Serena Williams won Wimbledon in a dominating performance, giving her 21 career Grand Slam singles titles. There has been heated debate by sports talking heads and sports fans alike about Williams’s role as the best female athlete ever, and even the best athlete of either gender of her generation. At age 33, she’s the oldest woman ever to win Wimbledon and shows no signs of slowing down, having won the last four Grand Slam tournaments.
Despite her enormous athletic success, she has faced a different kind of pressure that male athletes nearly never have to endure. Williams has a muscular build, with large triceps, biceps, shoulders, and quads. She is a physical specimen unlike any tennis player ever. She has received criticism for her muscularity, as many deem it non-feminine. In a sport where fashion and looks, rather than talent, often garner the most attention, women’s tennis can place a brutally judgmental spotlight on its participants.
Even though strength and larger muscles may help Williams’s competition get closer to her level, many opt not to bulk up in order to “remain more feminine.” These body image issues are powerful for women at elite levels.
Off-the-court endorsements have made Maria Sharapova, the world’s number two player, the highest-earning female athlete for over a decade. She’s slender and blond. And like many women and girls, she says she wishes she were thinner. Sharapova says, “I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish.” Sharapova has stated that she avoids weight training.
Agnieszka Radwanska, currently ranked number seven in the world, has over $18 million in career earnings. However, when it comes to becoming stronger, she has declared that looks matter to her and as a result she avoids bulking up. Her coach, Tomasz Wiktorowski, says Radwanska wants to maintain her slim physique because of her perception of a relationship between muscularity and gender, “First of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”
I’ve written about the pressure girls and women feel to stay thin. The wow stat that all of us should keep in the front of our minds is that 80 percent of ten-year-old girls have been on a diet. Personal trainer and YouTube workout star Amy Kiser noted in our interview earlier this year that she avoided lifting weights for years because she was so afraid of gaining muscle. Ironically, she blames her avoidance of weight work for keeping her from getting healthy.
Williams is a terrific role model for women and girls. She shows them that it’s beautiful to be strong and healthy. Particularly in a sport in which there is a glass ceiling on physique for women, it’s considered “unsexy” to have muscle by many fans and critics and by players themselves. Unfortunately, Sharapova’s and Radwanska’s perspective is the norm, not the exception. German pro, Andrea Petkovic, says, “I’m self-conscious about what people might say. It’s stupid, but it’s insecurities that every woman has, I think. I definitely have them… I would love to be a confident player that is proud of her body.” Petkovic shudders at seeing photographs displaying herself hitting backhands that show her bulging arm muscles. She says that the pictures make her feel “unfeminine.”
There is clearly a lot of progress yet to be made. Right now, Williams is leading the way towards breaking the glass ceiling that values looks over success. Williams says, “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... I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body.”
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