The XX Factor

Female Tennis Players Are Still Bullied for Looking Strong

Serena Williams celebrates after winning Wimbledon on Saturday.

Photo by Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a piece by Ben Rothenberg about the struggle of female tennis players to maintain a positive body image in a society that thinks musculature on women is unfeminine. Rothenberg describes athletes struggling—even going through therapy—just to find peace with the muscles that they use to excel at their sport. Overall, the piece demonstrates how ridiculous beauty standards are—that objectively healthy and strong women are made to feel bad for not looking frail enough.

At least one prominent reader, however, walked away from Rothenberg’s article feeling like women should feel bad about being muscular. Former Bush speechwriter and Atlantic senior editor David Frum took to Twitter to shame Wimbledon champion and women’s No. 1 Serena Williams in particular. 

He then unleashed a series of tweets claiming that he wasn’t trying to “allege against Serena”; he was, you know, just asking questions

The fact that someone such as Frum can’t imagine that a woman can build major muscle by being the greatest athlete her sport has ever seen shows how much social pressures really do serve to distort basic realities about the female body.

If Frum had read the Times piece more closely, he’d have realized that elite women’s tennis players don’t struggle to bulk up—they struggle instead against their natural tendency to develop muscle in training. (That struggle may or may not relate to the desire to cultivate the good opinion of David Frum.) As Rothenberg points out, Maria Sharapova “has been the highest-paid female athlete for more than a decade because of her lucrative endorsements,” in no small part because of her lithe figure, even though Williams is clearly the greater athlete. Sharapova told him, “I can’t handle lifting more than five pounds,” a line that might have seemed too broad for an Amy Schumer skit.

It’s a relief that several of the athletes in the Times piece don’t fret about men who might be cowed by their bicep definition. “I actually like looking strong,” Heather Watson said. “I find strong, fit women a lot more attractive than lanky no-shape ones.”

There is nothing inevitable about women feeling like they have to be waif-like. Consider this year’s ESPN Body issue, in which, without commentary or hedging, female athletes are celebrated for their strength in exactly the same light as their male counterparts. These women are beautiful not despite their muscles, but because of them.