The Conversation

Women, bikinis and Serena Williams

German tennis athlete Andrea Petkovic, ranked 16th in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association, said she loathed seeing photos of herself hitting a two-handed backhand. “I just feel unfeminine,” she said.
German tennis athlete Andrea Petkovic, ranked 16th in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association, said she loathed seeing photos of herself hitting a two-handed backhand. “I just feel unfeminine,” she said. El Nuevo Herald

I last wore a bikini nearly 25 years ago when I was eight months pregnant. That summer it was brutally hot, and the stucco bungalow we were renting in Los Angeles didn’t have air conditioning. In lieu of driving to Santa Monica and plunging into the Pacific every 10 minutes, I’d turn the hose on myself and dry off on the front steps.

It didn’t occur to me to care how I looked. I was miserable, and my goal was to wear as little as possible. Demi Moore had recently posed naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair, triggering a kerfuffle about decency and motherhood. So I also felt empowered in my near-nakedness.

I mention this because it’s summer, and even with all that passage of time, yet another generation of young women is consumed with dread at the thought of being seen in a bikini. In light of beach season, the website Refinery29 surveyed 1,000 millennial women to see how women view their bodies and how that compared to a so-called “bikini body.” Although 54 percent said they were “mostly happy” with their bodies, a staggering 80 percent avoided activities because they feel self-conscious about their shape.

The activity they shunned most? Going to the beach.

I find these results puzzling – and not simply because I love the beach. What’s causing young women to still feel so bad about their bodies, decades into feminism, and in an age of outspoken and curvy feminist role models like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer?

As Schumer, who was featured on the cover of Glamour in July, told the magazine about her 160-pound shape: “I have a belly. I have cellulite. And I still deserve love.”

Feminists of my generation thought that by now that attitude would be a matter of fact. So what gives?

Some experts blame the unrelenting tide of images on social media for churning body shame reflexes. There’s “a bigger platform than ever for us to obsess over appearance,” Evelyn Meier, who is researching Facebook’s effects on body image at American University in Washington, D.C., told Glamour magazine last year.

In 2014, Glamour magazine and Ohio State University conducted a survey of 1,000 women ages 18 to 40, asking them to assess their bodies. Nearly half of those whose weights were normal still thought they were too fat. How much could you gain, they were asked, and “still like yourself?” Five pounds, a majority of the women said, citing the magic number of self-acceptance. A few said they couldn’t afford to gain an ounce.

The survey also found that more than 60 percent of the women who browsed photos on sites like Instagram and Facebook felt terrible about their bodies. And they weren’t comparing themselves to actresses and models so much as to regular women.

“The anonymous woman could be anyone,” explained Los Angeles clinical psychologist Jessica Zucker. “You don’t know it’s a celebrity, so your expectations change; you think that body should be within your reach.”

But the problem goes far beyond photos. It’s also how the media, men and even women continue to revere a certain female body type – skinny, skinny and, well, skinny – and denigrate others.

Witness what happened to Serena Williams. After winning Wimbledon – her 21st Grand Slam singles title – the 33-year-old tennis great got served a volley of sexist and racist remarks about her muscular physique.

David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, wondered on Twitter whether Williams was on steroids. After J.K. Rowling tweeted her love for Williams, a male user responded with a photo of Williams in a tight, orange dress, joking that she looked like a man.

He should have known better than to mess with the woman who brought us Voldemort. “‘She is built like a man.’ Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress,” Rowling tweeted back. “You’re an idiot.”

But the most appalling remarks came the day before the match, in a story in The New York Times. Ostensibly about the struggles female tennis stars have with body image and ambition, the article was also a revealing glimpse of the sport’s outdated attitudes and misogyny. And, sadly, of the negative feelings some athletes have about their own powerful bodies.

After praising Williams’ strength and her domination of women’s tennis, the reporter swiftly backhanded her supposed appeal as a conventional sex object: “Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most choose not to.”

Of course, with coaches on the tennis circuit like Tomasz Wiktorowski, why would they?

“It’s our decision to keep her the smallest player in the top 10,” Wiktorowski said of Agnieszka Radwanska, who at 5-foot-8 reportedly weighs a dainty 123 pounds. As if that paternalism wasn’t offensive enough, he elaborated: “Because first of all she’s a woman, and she wants to be a woman.”

So, is Serena Williams not a woman?

Then there was German player Andrea Petkovic, loathing the sight of photos of her ripped arms hitting a two-handed backhand. Said the 16th-ranked athlete: “I just feel unfeminine.”

The market underscores the mixed message; tiny cuteness, it appears, is better even than winning. Although she’s been beaten by Williams a whopping 17 times at Wimbledon, Maria Sharapova remains the highest-paid female athlete in the world.

It’s not because of the blond Russian’s finesse on the court, but her hefty endorsements. “I always want to be skinnier, with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish,” she told the Times, laughing.

What’s the answer to women’s body image woes?

Short of organizing a national bikini body march for women, I think ESPN The Magazine might be onto something. In late July, the magazine’s seventh annual Body Issue went online, featuring 10 female athletes in the nude reflecting positively on their bodies. Among the stars is Amanda Bingson, 25, who excels at the indelicate sport of hammer throw.

Talk about big and strong.

“I’m just dense,” she told the magazine. “I think it’s important to show that athletes come in all shapes and sizes. … I’ll be honest, I like everything about my body.”

I wonder how many bikini seasons will go by before all women feel that way.

Mona Gable is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles and author of “Blood Brother: The Gene That Rocked My Family,” published by Shebooks 2014. Visit her website at mona-gable.com and follow her on Twitter @monalgable.

Join the

Conversation

What’s causing young women to still feel so bad about their bodies in an age of outspoken and curvy feminist role models like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer?

To write a letter to the editor, go to sacbee.com/submit-letter.

Or go to our Facebook page at facebook.com/sacramentobee.

  Comments