Meet Taylor Townsend. She just made and impressive grand slam debut at the French Open.
She made it to the third round last week, making her the youngest American woman to advance that far in the French since 2003. She is 18 years old, with a game the media has deemed retro and a decidedly outgoing and competitive spirit. She pulled off an impressive 2nd round upset against the 20th seed and is awaiting news of a possible Wimbledon wild card. Andy Murray tweeted about her. All in all, I’d say she killed her first slam performance.
But. A lot of media coverage has been focused away from her game. Two years ago, the USTA attempted to keep the then 16-year old from playing in the US Open because of ‘concerns about her health’ ie they thought she needed to lose weight. She played anyway, however her mother had to pay out of pocket for their travel expenses.
Serena Williams, herself the victim of body trolling in the past despite 17 GS singles titles plus another 15 in doubles, was quoted as saying “For a female, particularly, in the United States, in particular, an African-American, to have to deal with that is unnecessary… Women athletes come in all different sizes and shapes and colors and everything. I think you can see that more than anywhere on the tennis tour.” Taylor won the doubles title and advanced to the quarters in the singles bracket of that tournament. She made it to #1 in the world as a junior. She has since made up with the USTA, and they reimbursed her for those travel costs.
The media is still talking about her body, with lots of speculation about how ‘getting in better shape’ could improve her game. Now, because we are talking about athletes, I’m not opposed to talking about physicality. We do, in fact, talk about the bodies of male athletes quite a bit. We don’t require male athletes to be as conventionally attractive or genial as we like our female athletes, but that’s a different discussion for a different day. The question here is whether her body shape is impeding her game. Jon Wertheim at Sports Illustrated thinks not.
“…the evidence that her physique hinders her tennis is scant at best. In her second round match, she played 30 games over three sets and almost two-and-a-half hours against France’s Alize Cornet (who goes 5-8, 139 pounds) Townsend won thrillingly, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 and was hardly winded.”
I think this is an interesting, very fine point in the way we talk about women’s bodies, and men’s bodies, and the language we use. For many athletes, concerns about weight are coded in discussions about their ‘fitness’, their endurance and ‘stamina’. But, as Wertheim points out, she doesn’t appear to have an issue hanging with the other women athletes. And, frankly, if you’ve been watching the ladies tour for the past few years, you’ll have already noticed a dearth in strength and stamina amongst the majority of the players, particularly the skinny-minny crowd.
We so rarely speculate on the health of people with ‘normal’ body types, assuming they must be fine. And yet we have a collective cultural understanding that larger bodies are unhealthy and thus deserving of our ‘concern’ (read: trolling, judgement). This understanding is completely biased, and not at all based on fact. Body weight and shape can be used as markers of health when included in an overall assement of other markers such as resting heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. But taken alone, weight cannot tell you anything significant about your health. In fact, it’s entirely possible for folks who have the same exact habits, good or bad, both food and activity related, to end up with drastically different bodies.
I guess I’m hoping that, if we are going to speculate and comment on athletes bodies (which I have mixed feelings about because it is work related for them but also totally exploitive/fun/sexy for us…) that we do so in the same way for all bodies. I mean, maybe I’d like to hear more about how Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are, believe it or not, the same height and weight! Say what?! And also, I’ve never heard anyone talk about how hefty some major league baseball pitchers are, or at least not as the main meat of the coverage. And it shouldn’t be the main story, because an athlete’s performance should be our chief concern. In short, I wish the issue of Taylor’s body and her past struggles was more of a foot note, an aside, a passing background tidbit instead of the headline. I wish her story wasn’t framed as part of a culture war between small and large people. I wish that we all, in general, were more accepting of a greater range of bodies. I wish our standards for what is beautiful, and what is athletic, were expanded to include the vast and wonderful array of people that we encounter on the streets and on the courts. Taylor’s debut was exciting, and her future looks promising. She deserves to be covered because of her on court performance, not how she looks in the tennis skirt.
Which, BTW, is awesome.