First of all she’s a woman

Yet again I’m surprised. Some women athletes decide not to build muscle, because they’re girrrrrrrls.

The Times starts with Serena Williams, who has muscles. She plays tennis – muscles come in handy.

Williams, who will be vying for the Wimbledon title against Garbiñe Muguruza on Saturday, has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.

Despite Williams’s success — a victory Saturday would give her 21 Grand Slam singles titles and her fourth in a row — body-image issues among female tennis players persist, compelling many players to avoid bulking up.

So…they actually decide not to work to have the extra power that would make them better at their chosen sport?

“It’s our decision to keep her as the smallest player in the top 10,” said Tomasz Wiktorowski, the coach of Agnieszka Radwanska, who is listed at 5 feet 8 and 123 pounds. “Because, first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”

Good god.

She would stop being a woman if she had bigger muscles?

For many, perceived ideal feminine body type can seem at odds with the best physique for tennis success. Andrea Petkovic, a German ranked 14th, said she particularly loathed seeing pictures of herself hitting two-handed backhands, when her arm muscles appear the most bulging.

“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 definitely have them and I’m not ashamed to admit it. 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.”

That’s so desperately sad.

Wouldn’t it be nice if people could stop judging women that way?

The Times includes a picture of her gripping the racket with both hands, muscles bulging – I think she looks quite breathtaking.

Madison Keys, a 20-year-old American, was recently angered by a television show in which men discussed their picks for the most attractive female athletes.

“One of the guys on it was like, ‘Well, aren’t they all really masculine?’ and I kind of took it personally,” Keys said. “I was like, ‘No, I’m not, actually.’ I think it still is a little bit against kind of what society thinks that you should be doing.”

Little tiny bodies and little wispy voices – that’s what society thinks that you should be doing. It can take a running jump.


  1. karmacat says

    The oppressors don’t want women to be powerful. Think of all that mental power if women didn’t have to think about how their bodies look. The truth is that bodies come in all different sizes and shapes and we should focus more on what our bodies can do.

  2. Shan Se says

    The cruellest thing that the dominant class can do is convince the subordinate class that they must not ever emulate the dominant class’s features.
    So we end up having sportswomen who are *afraid* to develop their physical strength because then they’d look ‘unfeminine’ (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean).

  3. drken says

    I’m not sure what bothers me more, the fact that female athletes will sacrifice strength because bigger muscles will make them less attractive or that it’s somehow important for female athletes to be seen as attractive.

  4. says

    Think of all that mental power if women didn’t have to think about how their bodies look.

    Screw the mental power. Think of what would happen if women, on average, could just the shit out of any man that catcalled them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some men like women to be weak.

  5. cuervocuero says


    Just remember women’s basketball uniforms and both types of pro-level volleyball are skin tighter than men’s uniforms becuz male gaze ratings, stated outright by the folks in charge of said events.

    Women’s soccer fended off Sepp Blatter just last year, drooling about how women in soccer needed tighter outfits like in volleyball. And they threw in sexy models in little black dresses and heels, parading the medals at the Women’s world cup up here bcuz….

    I know many sports addict men who prefer women’s sports because there’s actual skill going on that’s become lower priority in men’s high levels, but for many men still, especially those in charge of decisions and media, sports aren’t something women play. They’re something women play *at*, while bouncing and writhing in approved feminine form for the only viewing audience out there; the men decreeing how the athletes should dress, look, get paid…

  6. Helene says

    It’s not so simple. I play tennis. There are advantages and disadvantages to “bulking”. Williams, who has more powerful strokes than most players, is not as quick on the court as lighter players. And, interestingly, her sister Venus, who has a fairly conventional tennis player’s body, has a stronger serve. As the article points out, Sharapova instead focuses “… on stretching and preventive exercises, which she believes are more beneficial for tennis than adding muscle.”

    Just as I don’t judge people by their (given) body types, I don’t judge people by their desire to modify their looks. Either for sports or simply for what they see in the mirror. As long as they’re not hypocritical about it. Tennis – at that level – is a spectator sport. Actors are hired for their physical appearance and there’s no denying that Cristiano Ronaldo owes a good chunk of his income to his looks. Serena Williams wins and looks damn good doing it. She’s made the most of her body type and – as anyone who follows tennis knows – she isn’t shy about flaunting it. More power to her.

  7. Daniel Schealler says

    I can’t even get into the mindset that would ever suggest that a female athlete should avoid training her body to excel at her chosen sport. That’s what being an athlete means.

    For fuck’s sake, what is wrong with people?

  8. mithrandir says

    I’m going to save this for the next time someone tells me women are inherently less athletic than men.

  9. Rob says

    As other commentators have noted there are pro’s and con’s to muscle bulk that have to be weighed up against the needs of the sport, the style of the athletes play in that sport and what they can easily physiologically accomplish. However, it’s enormously sad that professional female athletes are even having to contemplate how others will perceive them when making training decisions.
    Then again, tennis has a history of attractive but mediocre players making considerably more money than better players off the back of endorsements by, you know, bra and cosmetic companies. I’m sure that also enters the equation (which loops back to how others will perceive them).
    I recall reading somewhere a year or so ago that despite all the people going to the gym and training, the average women was now less muscular than her 1970’s counterpart. Take that recollection with a grain of salt, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised given how sedentary our lives are.

  10. Daniel Schealler says

    I recall reading somewhere a year or so ago that despite all the people going to the gym and training, the average women was now less muscular than her 1970’s counterpart. Take that recollection with a grain of salt, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised given how sedentary our lives are.

    A contributing factor to his is that many women who go to the gym will focus almost exclusively on cardiovascular exercise and neglect resistance training in the false belief that it will make them look like female body builders, when really they just want to look lean and thin.

    The irony of this is that a combination of strength training, cardiovascular training, a healthy and balanced diet, and a good sleep schedule are all required to attain the goal they’re aiming for in the first place. Leaving the strength training removes a potent tool for attaining their goals.

    The vanity and objectification that too-often goes with gym culture is a problem. But it’s a double-problem, because women are often confused and misled about how to attain the beauty standards they’re aiming for in the first place out of flawed assumptions about how women ‘should’ train and out of misguided fears about how women ‘should’ look. It’s lose/lose.

  11. says

    I once knew a woman, an old-fashioned farm wife, a big woman, probably a couple of hundred pounds of her. An efficient, hard-working, hard-muscled woman; she could climb into a hay wagon and toss 60-pound hay bales with the best of the men.

    She and her husband, Jimmy, were in their 60s then. He was tall and skinny, all wire and fiber, probably about 3/4 her weight. She wore her white hair piled on top of her head, out of her way, which made her seem taller than him.

    I was in the local store one day, browsing t-shirts for the kids. I came around a display and came face to face with Jimmy. He was standing, looking towards the checkout counter. I followed his gaze; his wife was there, paying the bill. I looked back at Jimmy, and he said, almost as if in awe, “Isn’t she beautiful!”

    And she was. I’ve never forgotten that.

    We’ve lost something, restricting our idea of beauty and femininity to hair, heels, and fragility.

  12. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    The best response I’ve seen thus far has been- Breaking News: World’s Greatest Athlete Has Muscles!!

    I love that Serena has such a positive attitude on this stuff and seems to truly not let gender norms make her feel any less beautiful. On top of that, the amount of racism she routinely endures is well exactly what you’d expect. She’s one strong, amazing, lovely, woman who is sincerely proud of being a Black woman. She’s also one of only a few open feminists in the WTA. It’s hard not to root for her just on those facts alone.

    On the other hand, as this article shows, many WTA players still buy into the male gaze standards of attractiveness. It’s so sad to hear Madison Keys (who is I believe only 19 and has the game to possibly be another superstar) already falling prey to them. Sigh.

  13. Pieter B, FCD says

    My mother was an excellent tennis player even into her 70s. She played two sets with her regular group of older ladies the morning of the day she died. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always admired athletic women, and never considered muscles unfeminine. I’ve felt honored over the years to participate in a variety of sports with women who could in many cases kick my ass, and not just at that sport.

    Back in the 1970s there was a surge in the popularity of tennis. One of my woman co-workers took up the game and rapidly became quite good at it. She abruptly gave it up, though, “Because I was developing ugly bulgy muscles in my calves.” I walked away from that conversation shaking my head.

  14. =8)-DX says

    See, sexism doesn’t exist, even differences in muscle-buildup are because of women’s choices.


  15. sawells says

    After Wimbledon I looked up some articles on Serena Williams’ exercise routine- because she’s so much more powerful than most of the other players, it’s like she’s playing an entirely different game. Her semifinal match vs. Sharapova looked like adult versus child. I found some comments from a few years ago where she said she uses resistance bands rather than weights. What amused me was that when the interviewer asked if she used weights she said no, and she’d recently been to the gym with her mother, and her mother can lift weights she can’t.

    What baffles me is that there are people who would apparently rather believe that Serena Williams is actually a man – yes, people have claimed this, go figure – rather than extend their concept of “woman” to include “may have muscles”.

    Incidentally, huge kudos to both Heather Watson and Garbine Muguruza at Wimbledon this year – great young talents coming up.

  16. Mookie says

    Helene, #7

    She’s made the most of her body type and – as anyone who follows tennis knows – she isn’t shy about flaunting it. More power to her.

    I don’t know if this is intentional, but I sense you’re suggesting that making “the most of her body type” is a kind of consolation prize for being abnormal; it feels like you’re congratulating her on overcoming the terrible burden of being black and I’m assuming that’s unconscious.

    I’m not surprised the NYT article failed to mention race even once, but no one’s done that here, either, which is curious because so much of the ire directed at her and her sister before her has been racially coded. Serena Williams is not conventionally good-looking (she is much more good-looking than anyone on the planet, but my lady boner is not important here) and is obviously much more fit and conditioned than the average person, but she has a black woman’s body, and those have always been judged as too ample, too sexual, not dainty enough. In a white-dominated sport traditionally played (in the Open Era) by professionals who are either independently wealthy or whose upper middling families can supplement small national subsidies in order to fund their children’s touring and training from a very early age, this is particularly crucial.

    US and European commentators have a habit of fixating on Williams’s weight (under the guise of concern about her speed, which is not marvelous but her footwork is excellent and her supremely precise placement helps to counteract her opponents’ speed), her “loud” clothing choices (dogwhistle about Tasteless Black People), her hair (ditto), her “attitude” (observed as uppity and quick to anger, rather than self-confident and assertive). She’s rarely praised for her commitment to training and her intelligence and ability to improvise on court; instead, she’s portrayed as a shrewd and calculating businesswoman and her dominance over the past decade reduced to innate (versus skilled and well-developed) “talent.”*

    *common enough complaint from great white hope-rs, that when athletes of color surpass white achievements they do so unfairly because of raw physicality or unfair “genetics”

  17. Mookie says

    I’m not surprised the NYT article failed to mention race even once, but no one’s done that here, either…

    Apologies, Uncle Ebeneezer at 14 did identify the racial component of policing tennis players’ bodies.

  18. sawells says

    It certainly feels like a lot of the flak the Williams sisters have got over their careers has an element of resentment that they aren’t the willowy blondes that female tennis players are “supposed” to be.

  19. says

    When Amélie Mauresmo was playing, some stupidly said her physique and face were “too masculine”, partly attacking her being a lesbian and partly insinuating she took testosterone or steroids. Compare that with Sania Mirza, the Indian tennis player who has been questioned multiple times about her breast size. “Is it a problem?” reporters repeatedly ask, cluelessly unaware that asking is the problem.

    Last year, Andy Murray hired Mauresmo as his coach. Again the attacks came, questioning if she was qualified (two major titles and 25 career tournament wins aren’t enough?) or if a woman should be coaching a man. Unbelievable.

  20. Helene says

    Mookie @18,

    Bullshit. Compare the bodies of Serena and Venus. There’s no “black” component in any of this (and I know, being half black myself). Venus is taller; Serena is (to use the NY Times term) “bulkier”. Different strokes, etc. Venus is far more “willowy” (to borrow another adjective from a commenter here) than many white players. As was the legendary Althea Gibson, the greatest black tennis player before the Williams sisters (look her up on Google images). As I mentioned above, muscle bulk is a mixed blessing in tennis; it adds power to your strokes but it may hamper your speed and agility. It’s the same on both sides of the sexual divide. Novak Djokovic, the world no. 1 male player is – dare I say it? – almost “willowy”. As for Serena’s temperament, it’s pretty much par for the course among tennis stars; she can be moody but she’s smart, self-aware and never ungracious. Unlike many other players, both women and men. So stop grinding your axes, people, ok?

  21. Kevin Kehres says

    I actually have wondered about Serena’s physique because she’s extremely quick for a woman with that amount of muscular bulk. Quite unusual. Resistance bands versus weights makes sense.

    The only other athlete I ever saw with a comparable body type who was that amazingly quick was Kirby Puckett, Hall of Fame baseball player for the Minnesota Twins. He looked like a giant had taken a 6-5 guy and squooshed him down to about 5-11. But man, he could run. Serena has that same muscularity. Fast twitch muscle fibers.

    I don’t think the other tennis players could match Serena’s physique even if they tried. Genetics. Look at her sister — tall, lanky, power coming from her leverage. Same with Sharapova.

  22. Helene says

    Kevin Kehres @23,

    Exactly. I think the commenters who lumped Venus with Serena can’t have watched them to any extent (in fact they competed against each other this year at Wimbledon). Serena is hardly short but Venus must be 4-5 inches taller, about par with Sharapova. “Lanky”, to use your adjective. And plenty powerful. A stronger serve than Serena. But Serena’s ground strokes are stronger. Nothing to do with skin colour.

  23. Uncle Ebeneezer says

    I think the Black component that Mookie is referring to is the fact that both Venus and Serena have received far more attention on their bodies than the rest of the (mostly White) players (in addition to policing of their behavior, sportsmanship, fashion choices etc.) And as she noted the Williams sisters success is always credited to physical differences between them and everyone else, despite the fact that they themselves are physically very different and there are other players who share their strength (Kuznetsova, Stosur, Cibulkova’s legs etc.) This focus on diminishing the Williams sisters games to mere physical gifts is understating all the other aspects of their game, and the fact that they get this simplistic focus on them is a result of them not meeting the White norms of a historically White sport. I’ve watched a lot of both Venus and Serena over the years and I frequent tennis blogs quite a bit. There’s ALWAYS a Black Component to the discussions (with an unhealthy dose of Sexism Component as well.) Any discussion of women’s bodies will inevitably have a Black component if the subject is Black. Sometimes it’s subtle. Usually it’s disgustingly obvious with comments about racial stereotypes. But any conversation about Black women’s bodies through the prism of White norms is going to have a Black component.

    One note on the matter of Serena vs. Venus’ serve: Serena has the better serve overall. Venus gets slightly more speed but doesn’t have the consistency and ability to paint-the-lines the way Serena does. It’s a common misperception that muscle is what brings the big serve. It’s actually a combination of several things that can get the racquet head speed needed to serve huge and there are many ways to skin that cat. The biggest serves in the men’s game are Raonic, Anderson, Isner…all tall lanky guys who use their long arms and height to generate power. Shorter more buff guys like Almagro, Ferrer can also serve in the 120’s-130’s. And even someone average height and skinny as hell like Gilles Simon can pop a 130 sometimes.

  24. Helene says

    Uncle Ebeneezer @25,

    You’re right about Serena (re. attention to her body), but I’m a tennis player and a fan as well, and I can’t see that Venus has gotten any more attention for her physique (she has a pretty standard tall player’s body) than any of the white players. There’s always a dose of sexism in discussing women’s bodies, especially those of athletes. But my (black) radar has rarely detected any waves where Venus is concerned.

    As for big servers, you’re right that sheer speed doesn’t always win the point. Neither among the men (Roddick is a notable exception to the “lanky” rule as was Roscoe Tanner), nor the women. Accuracy is probably more important. I haven’t seen the statistics on Serena’s serve versus that of Venus but my casual observation seems to agree with yours.

  25. johnthedrunkard says

    Not that long ago, Baseball and Football players cringed away from strength training for fear of ‘bulk.’

    In fact, almost no one, male or female, is likely to become ‘too bulky’ unless they are a genetic freak or pumped full of steroids. Most women athletes who HAVE been caught doping do NOT look particularly ‘bulky.’

    Serena Williams may stand out in the over-trained, and under-strong world of women’s tennis. But really? Among actual athletes and fit women, she’s right in the pack.

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