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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Body Shaming Black Female Athletes Is Not Just About Race

8 minute read
Abdul-Jabbar is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is the author of the new book, Writings on the Wall.

Serena Williams won her 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon this month. This marks the 17th time in a row that she has defeated Maria Sharapova. Yet Williams, who has earned more prize money than any female player in tennis history, is continually overshadowed by the woman whom she consistently beats. In 2013, Sharapova earned $29 million, $23 million of that from endorsements. That same year, Williams earned $20.5 million, only $12 million of that from endorsements. How’s that possible? Because endorsements don’t always reward the best athlete. They often reward the most presentable according to the Western cultural ideal of beauty.

I know, you think this article is about racism. It’s not.

Misty Copeland just became the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. But when she was 13, she was rejected from a ballet academy for having the wrong body type. As an ad featuring Ms. Copeland put it, summarizing the responses she received early in her career: “Dear candidate, Thank you for your application to our ballet academy. Unfortunately, you have not been accepted. You lack the right feet, Achilles tendons, turnout, torso length, and bust.” At 13? That criticism of her body being too muscular and “mature” has followed her throughout her career. “There are people who say that I don’t have the body to be a dancer, that my legs are too muscular, that I shouldn’t be wearing a tutu, that I don’t fit in,” Copeland said in response.

What do these two highly successful athletic women have in common? They seem to endure more body shaming than their white, less successful counterparts.

(Still not about racism.)

In her novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes, “Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another—physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.” Morrison’s assessment of social ideals for physical beauty as destructive is harshly accurate. We have established a definition of beauty so narrow that almost no one can live up to it. Women struggle to fit within the constrictions of social expectations of thin, youthful, sexuality as constricting as a Victorian corset. We display these paragons of beauty from billboards and magazine covers and Victoria Secret ads with the full knowledge that because of the use of photo-enhancing, lighting, makeup, and other morphing techniques, the women shown are as real as the CGI-created Hulk in the Avengers movies.

There’s plenty of evidence showing how harmful this beauty standard is to society. The typical American woman spends about $15,000 on makeup over a lifetime (if that same money were invested into a retirement plan, it would give her about $100,000 at age 70). Even though Americans spend the most on cosmetics in the world, we are ranked only 23rd in one list of “satisfaction with life.” In a futile effort to fit this mythical ideal of beauty, millions of American women torture their feet with high heels, undergo unnecessary cosmetic surgeries, starve themselves, and make themselves physically and mentally miserable—all over an imaginary ideal they didn’t even create.

OK, I lied: Some of the body shaming of athletic black women is definitely a racist rejection of black women’s bodies that don’t conform to the traditional body shapes of white athletes and dancers. No one questions the beauty of black actresses such as Kerry Washington (Scandal) or Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) because they fit the lithe image perpetuated by women’s fashion magazines. The body shaming of Williams and Copeland is partly because they don’t fit the Western ideal of femininity. But another cause is our disrespectful ideal of the feminine body in general.

The bigger issue here is the public pressure regarding femininity, especially among our athletes. It’s a misogynist idea that is detrimental to professional women athletes and to all the young girls who look up to these women as role models because it can stifle their drive to excellence, not only on the playing field, but in other aspects of life.

The problem became even more evident in 2014 when the Russian Tennis Federation President Shamil Tarpischev called Venus and Serena Williams “the Williams Brothers,” a statement for which he was fined $25,000. As a result of this widespread attitude, whenever Serena Williams wants to go out incognito, she says she wears long sleeves to cover up her signature muscular arms. Outside the fanboy world of Xena: Princess Warrior and Wonder Woman, a muscular woman is generally not the ideal.

Why not?

I suspect because our ideal woman continues to be the vulnerable woman unable to defend herself against a man. On one hand, this conforms to the social norms of the man as the strong protector and the woman as the childlike, weak dependent. (Hence, all the “romantic” portrayals of men swooping up women in their arms and carrying them to safety or bed.)

On the other hand, it discourages those men and women who don’t want to follow that traditional but narrow definition. I’m reminded of that powerful scene in the second season of True Detective when detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) explains why she carries so many weapons: “Could you do this job if everyone you encountered could overpower you? I mean, forget police work. No man could walk around like that without going nuts. The fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands.” Perhaps the muscular, athletic woman symbolizes physical and mental self-sufficiency, which threatens the cozy ideal of beauty as soft, fragile, and weak.

This beauty standard translates in sports to women being more concerned with a marketable image than athletic ability. Tennis pro Agnieszka Radwanska is 5 feet 8 but only 123 pounds. This is a conscious decision by her coach “to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” he told the New York Times. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.” Tennis pro Andrea Petkovic, ranked 14th, said she hated seeing photos of her bulging arms whenever she hit a two-handed backhands. “I just feel unfeminine,” she said. “I don’t know — it’s probably that I’m self-conscious about what people might say. It’s stupid, but it’s insecurities that every woman has, I think … I would love to be a confident player that is proud of her body. Women, when we grow up we’ve been judged more, our physicality is judged more, and it makes us self-conscious.”

This reluctance to push themselves physically because they reduce their marketability as women results in some women athletes never striving to be the fully realized athletes they could be. This same mentality of holding back to fit the social mold of a “lady” makes women less competitive in the job marketplace, too.

Sharapova, at 6 feet 2 and 130 pounds (Williams is 5 feet 9 and weighs 150 pounds), admits that that she wishes she could be even thinner: “I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish.” (Is it? Should it be?) She says she does no weight training. “I can’t handle lifting more than five pounds. It’s just annoying, and it’s just too much hard work. And for my sport, I just feel like it’s unnecessary.” Yet she’s been beaten 17 times in a row by someone who has added that muscle necessary to excel. Does she want to be the highest-paid female athlete or the best one?

“I sing the body electric,” Walt Whitman wrote in a poem from Leaves of Grass. In it, he expresses Renaissance delight over the physical body as a source of pleasure, spirituality, and achievement. If Americans are to similarly celebrate the body, we must questions our ideals of physical beauty and overcome the brainwashing to make sure they are healthy, not just convenient marketing tools to create insecurity to sell products. The fact that these ideals of what constitutes beauty have changed throughout history tells us that they aren’t all hardwired into our brains. By broadening our ideals of beauty, we can encourage females of all ages to confidently strive to reach their full potential. We can, and shall, overcome.

Read next: Jennifer Lawrence on Why Hollywood Has Finally Shut Up About Her Body

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