Serena Williams, New York Times and Body Image

A New York Times article on tennis champion Serena Williams’ physique has stirred up controversy on social media. A long-time advocate for elite professional female athletes shares her perspective.

By Sheryl Estrada

Serena Williams is ranked number one in women’s single tennis, winning her sixth Wimbledon championship on Saturday. She holds the greatest number of major singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles combined among active players, female or male.

The New York Times, under fire last year for characterizing TV producer Shonda Rhimes as an angry black woman, is now being criticized for publishing an article the day before Williams’ Wimbledon win, “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition. ”

Freelancer Ben Rothenberg describes Williams as having “large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame.” He quotes her as saying, “I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it” but then highlights the testimonies of white female tennis players who don’t want to have her physique.

New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan writes, “… By Friday afternoon, many readers were aghast. They were calling the article (and even The Times itself) racist and sexist. They were deploring the article’s timing, which focused on body image just when Ms. Williams was triumphing at Wimbledon.”

It caused a firestorm on Twitter, particularly when the New York Times sent a tweet with a link to the story, including the following quote:

A woman having to sacrifice femininity for sports is an antiquated topic. Why is it still being discussed?

For more than 20 years, Yolanda L. Jackson served as the Senior Director of Athlete Marketing & Promotions at the Women’s Sports Foundation, founded in 1974 by Billie Jean King. She has worked with hundreds of professional female athletes, such as Martina Navratilova, Laila Ali, Michelle Kwan and Sarah Hughes. Prior to this position, Jackson was chosen by tennis great Arthur Ashe to be Executive Director of Arthur Ashe Athletic Association, serving in the role for almost 10 years.

Jackson currently owns and operates a sports marketing firm and shared with DiversityInc her perspective on the topic.

Q. What are your thoughts about the New York Times article?

A. I read that article and I posted it on my website and Twitter page with the caption, “It’s a pity that some players value how thin they are over how well they perform!” Two things struck me reading the article. One, if you value how you look on the court more than doing what it takes to be a champion and be at the top of your sport, then you don’t deserve to be a champion. The other is as long as the media continues to promote a “perfect” body image as that of a fashion model, then that’s what most of the players are going to emulate and aspire to. They should take a page from Chrissie Evert’s playbook.  When she kept losing to Martina Navratilova, she realized that she had to do more in order to reach her goal of beating Martina. So she got into the gym and started training. You have to have the heart of a champion like Chrissie had in order to be number one.

Q. Why has the dialogue turned from Serena Williams possibly being one of the greatest athletes, male or female, of our time to her appearance?

A. The media always portrays a woman who has achieved the ultimate feat in sports as having the masculine qualities of being strong, forceful, and dominating, all unfeminine and unattractive in their eyes. I remember that they portrayed Martina the same way when she reigned as number one in tennis. It is also the case currently with Brittney Griner. As soon as you excel, the media and some of the less intelligent vocal folks out there feel it’s their right and duty to find something, anything, wrong with you.

Q. Is sexism and racism that exists for women in sports the narrative that should be explored by the media?

A. Absolutely. But this situation has not changed in the media in the more than 20 years that I’ve been in the sports business. However, I’m noticing athletes in most of the other sports are changing their own attitude about body image and are now loving their strong, muscular, beautiful bodies, as evidenced by the Women’s National Soccer team. If anyone looked closely during the recent WWC tournament, they saw amazing muscles in those legs and upper body.

Q. You’ve fought long for gender equality in sports. Is there still ample work to be done?

A. Absolutely. The fight for women’s equality has been waged for over 40 years. Title IX took up the battle back then and organizations like the Women’s Sports Foundation and the National Women’s Law Center are continuing to wage battle against the unequal treatment of women athletes compared to the men. Unequal pay, subpar playing conditions, lack of recognition and respect for the talents and skills of women athletes are still top priority issues to overcome in order to reach parity with the men.

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  • Elizabeth Phillips

    You want to be built like Barbie? Fine. You’ll never beat Serena Williams, but we all know the ability to play the game isn’t as important as how you look. Right?

  • Every time there is a Black champion of anything the white folk will triangulate to something else other than the champion and their achievements. Remember when there was no white heavy weight champion, what did they do, they crated their own make-believe and called him Rocky, then went on to make several movies hoping to someday have a real one. How sad and racist.
    If Serena was skinny they would be complaining about that. How sad?

  • Sour grapes from those who can’t match her accomplishments. It’s totally irrelevant, but I think most women — particularly, tennis players — would absolutely kill for her body.

  • I think Serena Williams is absolutely beautiful and amazing! To be so strong and talented is something I admire greatly. It takes great discipline and a lot of very hard work on her part and she’s to be commended for her efforts, not torn down because of some people’s preoccupation with body image . . . let’s get past that ignorance finally, for cryin’ out loud!

    I completely agree with what Yolanda Jackson said about, ” . . . the media and some of the less intelligent vocal folks . . .” Emphasis on the less intelligent They’re jealous and they have very small minds.

    • Elizabeth Phillips

      Agreed! I tried to learn how to play tennis when I was a kid and I just wasn’t coordinated enough. The ability to not trip over your own feet when you’re walking down the sidewalk is something I greatly admire. The ability to not trip over your own feet while running back and forth for hours on various kinds of surfaces during which time you also hit balls from a number of angles in front of thousands of people is amazing. To do all this while looking like an Amazon goddess, as Serena does, is beyond my comprehension.

  • carmen becker

    Accept the greatness of the talent, which Serena has worked very hard for. All of this talk about her body image is nothing but nonsense. Can’t you appreciate talent and greatness without diminishing it in some way?? Shame on you and your negative thoughts, jealousy and racism.

  • Slightly off-topic, but I’d also like to commend her sister Venus Williams. Venus lost in the fourth round of Wimbledon (to Serena) despite her struggles with Sjögren syndrome, an auto-immune disorder. She is a disabled world-class athlete!

  • Nothing surprises me anymore. Serena Williams is beautiful, intelligent, personable talented and sexy. I think she is a Black goddess. I would love t have her body!

  • Does Serena Williams need to explain or apologize for her body type? As long as she isn’t taking steroids to get a muscular frame, so what? That’s the body God gave her. These types of articles really border on the ridiculous. Did they complain of Amelie Mauresmo’s manish, muscular frame when she was on the tour? How about Samantha Stosur? She’s very muscular. Anybody complaining about her? No, because they are white. The Williams sisters have been insulted ever since they showed up on the scene because they didn’t represent the typical tennis star. Too bad, and too sad that people can’t accept them for what they are: champions!

  • Any article trying to point out her lack of famininty is hilarious. She is a eautiful woman in insanely good shape.

    I heard an ESPN commentator making the case that she might be the best atlete of our time. He made a strong case for it.

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