Is Serena Williams’ Body More Important than her Record?

Serena Williams just won her sixth Wimbledon and 21st Grand Slam title. The world number-one singles player has won almost as many Grand Slams as the rest of the Women’s Tennis Association combined. She is literally and figuratively on top of the world.

But it seems like the media would rather talk about her body than her achievements.

When The New York Times published the article “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition,” in its Sports section, it sent the message that Williams’ body, and the feelings that others have about it, are more important than her many accomplishments.

Right out of the gate, the Times reduced Williams to her physique, writing that she “has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years.” Actually, her “frame” does not pack the power, she, through years of hard work and training, packs the power.

It adds that “her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.” The reason for this, as the article continues, is because of the misguided notion that those players would have to forfeit their womanliness to gain the strength necessary to become the best in their field.

Much of the framing of the Times’ piece is dismal, using Williams as a sort of otherworldly (read: unwomanly) spectacle against which other women tennis players in the article—many of them white and petite—are juxtaposed.

For example, Tomasz Wiktorowski, coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, said that it’s important to keep Radwanska “as the smallest player in the top 10…because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”

Alas, another man speaks for women and defines their womanhood. But Radwanska seems to have bought into the definition, too, telling the Times that gaining muscle could slow her down and that she cares about her looks “because I’m a girl.”

Maria Sharapova echoed this outlook, saying she wants “to be skinnier with less cellulite” and “can’t handle lifting more than five pounds,” because, as she says, “for my sport, I just feel like it’s unnecessary.”

Said Andrea Petkovic about photographs highlighting her arm muscles, “I just feel unfeminine,” though she recognized that much of her discomfort likely comes from the public’s judgment of women’s bodies.

The Times, despite including some great feedback from women tennis players—Heather Watson “actually like[s] looking strong”—fed into the public’s need to ridicule and determine the worth of women based on their bodies. When this piece was published, Williams was preparing to enter a prestigious competition among strong women competitors, yet it barely touched on her accomplishments. Nor did it mention that Williams, despite her number-one ranking, earns less than half of what Sharipova takes home in endorsements, which is likely because of Sharapova’s stereotypically “feminine” looks.

Women endure the public’s judgment of their bodies daily. One would think that the sports world, in which strength and power are ostensibly celebrated, would be a safe space for women’s bodies—that we would honor women’s strength just as we honor men’s. But instead, we write articles about women’s bodies and insecurities, rather than lauding their achievements.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons licensed under Creative Commons 2.0



Julia Robins is a Ms. editorial intern and a graduate of William & Mary. Follow Julia on Twitter @julia_robins.