Fit or unfit?
Critiquing a female athlete's physique is not sexist
Posted: Wednesday April 18, 2007 12:03PM; Updated: Wednesday April 18, 2007 6:13PM
You say "Serena Williams has reclaimed the mythical title as best pound-for-pound player in women's tennis (insert joke here) right now." I get so tired of the tennis media (white guys) making these pejorative and or sexist statements about female tennis athletes. When will you guys get it? Tennis is a real sport, although it is a "niche" sport (as you call it).
The frustrating part is that these value judgments are routinely made regarding whether someone is too thin or too fat or whatever. It would be one thing if you all made similar references to the men, but that is not the case. The really scary part is that you all are clueless about how sexist your statements are. I cannot be the only person who has noticed this.
Can you imagine someone saying that Roger Federer is a little heavy? Not. Even though I thought he looked a little heavy when he took off his shirt (ick) during the Guillermo Caņas match, none of the commentators contributed his loss to that. I guess they were not looking at his fat middle. Why is this sexist editorializing so common in tennis?
So a few years ago, maybe 2002, Martina Navratilova was asked what her comeback said about the quality of the WTA Tour. She stared the guy down and shot back, "How come no one ever questions what Michael Jordan's comeback means about the NBA?"
It was a nice sound bite and shut the guy up. Except that it was ludicrous. Everyone asked Jordan this question. Entire forests were felled discussing this in newspapers. Immeasurable air time and blog space was devoted to this. It was an overriding theme of that NBA season and was even addressed by the commissioner. There was no sexism. In fact, it was exactly the opposite. It was a completely logical question and Navratilova was being treated like anyone else.
Same thing here. Serena is a professional athlete and part of being a professional athlete means being subject to coverage about your fitness and physique. From Babe Ruth to George Foreman to Shaq, this has been the case. (Just consider the nicknames guys get: "The Fridge," "Big Country," "The Truck," "Hoss.") And it stands to reason: as an athlete, your body is at the heart of what you do. It's inherently relevant, the same way scrutiny of a singer's voice is relevant.
Jackie of Atlanta went on to write: "It would be one thing if you all made similar references to the men, but that is not the case."
Huh? How many fitness (and Taco Bell) references were once made at Andre Agassi's expense? Just a few months ago, a retirement ceremony for Yevgeny Kafelnikov was canceled by the Russian Federation because the dude was too fat! "You don't look like an athlete, you don't get feted like an athlete," the federation head essentially said. Even the Mighty Federer wouldn't be exempt if it were the case. (I honestly didn't notice him shirtless during the Caņas match, but now I'll look for it.)
I think in Serena's case, it's even less of a sensitive issue since she has been admirably (and endearingly) outspoken about her physique lately. To repeat the leading candidate for sports quote of the year:
"Just because I have large bosoms, and I have a big ass [laughter], I swear, my waist is 30 inches -- 29 to 30 inches, it's really small! I have the smallest waist, but just because I have those two assets, it looks like I'm not fit. Just in the locker room staring at my body, I'm like, 'Am I not fit, really not fit? Or is it just that I have all these extra assets?' You know, it just looks like I'm not fit. I don't care if I didn't eat for two years, I still wouldn't be a size two. No matter how slim I am, I always have this and that. I'm just not that way, I'm bootylicious."
Look, there's plenty of sexism and generally awful behavior in the press room. Don Imus is not, sadly, a lone voice in the wilderness. But the cause is undercut when you ask for two sets of rules. It seems to me that when the media makes remarks about Serena's fitness or grills Navratilova about the implications of her comeback, if anything, it legitimizes women's sports. Cutting off normal lines of inquiry simply because the subject has different plumbing is a good way to ensure second class status.
Long as you've got me on a rant, I recently heard a prominent American player complain that it was pretty ironic that he was being questioned about his fitness by a 50-something reporter who couldn't bench press his laptop. Wrong. Again, you're a professional athlete; scrutiny about your fitness and body is part of the drill. And one need not be your physical equal to make the judgments, no more than someone needs be a four-star chef to say a meal sucks, or an experienced actor to pan a movie.
1 of 3