The most successful female athlete of all time just got body shamed in the New York Times

Serena WilliamsAction Images via Reuters/Jason Cairnduff LivepicThis week, Serena Williams won her sixth Wimbledon victory. It was her 21st Grand Slam tournament win overall (and her fourth in a row).

As a woman in the public eye, it seems like even being one of the most gifted athletes isn’t enough to stop the media from calling you fat.

On Friday, just as Serena Williams was preparing to clean up her historic sixth Wimbledon victory, the New York Times decided it was a good time to critique her body:

Williams, who will be vying for the Wimbledon title against GarbiƱe Muguruza on Saturday, has large biceps and a mould-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.

The real disgusting part of this, though, is that the Times didn’t really critique Williams. Instead, it let her competitors do it by explaining that they don’t envy Williams’ physique even as she uses it to dominate them.

In the story, the Times printed the words of several top female tennis players unloading about their body image issues and describing their wish to be seen as small.

“People say, ‘Oh, you’re so skinny, I always thought you were huge,’ ” [Andrea Petkovic] said. “And then I feel like there are 80 million people in Germany who think I’m a bodybuilder. Then, when they see me in person, they think I’m O.K.”

Body image issues are something that should be discussed with a therapist, not a New York Times reporter. That women everywhere have body image issues isn’t exactly news. It’s the opposite of news. It helps no one to have those insecurities validated as worthy of considering by being paraded around in the pages of the New York Times.

I don’t really understand how publishing female tennis players expressing their desire to be perceived as petite does anything other than adding to the public perception that women should be constantly critical of their bodies. And it’s all especially silly since Williams’ body type that they’re belittling is regularly beating them at their own game.

Saying we shouldn’t attack muscular women like Williams for their body types isn’t just about sexism or body positivity. It’s about health. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, elite athletes have a significantly higher rate of eating disorders (20%) than the average group of women (about 9%), who in turn have a higher rate of eating disorders than men.

That’s in part because many of the personality traits that a person needs to be an elite athlete also show up in patients with eating disorders. The ANAD says these are all the common psychological profiles in common between elite athletes and people who develop anorexia:

  • perfectionism
  • high self-expectations
  • competitiveness
  • hyperactivity
  • repetitive exercise routines
  • compulsiveness
  • drive
  • tendency toward depression
  • body image distortion
  • pre-occupation with dieting and weight

Let’s just say that’s ten reasons beyond sexism that the media needs to lay off the body shaming.

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