But Are You Thin?

Haters Walk on WaterAt the age of 16 Taylor Townsend was the top ranked junior girls tennis player in the United States. At 15  she had beaten a player twice her age in her first pro win. She won the Australian Open juniors title in both singles and doubles, and the Wimbledon girls’ doubles title.  She was headed to the US Open when the United States Tennis Association pulled her funding and said that they wouldn’t fund any more tournaments until she lost weight because they were concerned about her fitness.  One would think the fact that she was the top ranked junior girl would be proof enough of her fitness, and maybe even help people to realize that fitness and body size are not the same thing, but not at the USTA.

Townsend’s mother paid her fees, Townsend finished in the quarter finals, and the public went into uproar.  USTA then changed their tune saying that it was all a “misunderstanding” (A misunderstanding that included not paying her fees, pulling her coaches and denying her a wild card into the main draw of the U.S. Open or its qualifying tournament.  Also, they have some ocean front property for sale in Arizona.)

Townsend’s story has a happy ending, well at this point a happy middle.  After the US Open debacle she left the USTA program and started working with former Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison who said “The biggest thing was just getting her to understand that she’s fine. Everybody doesn’t have the same shape of our bodies. She’s very clear on that now.”  Damn skippy Zina!  Oh, and did I mention that Townsend is kicking some ass?  Because she so very much is. Of course there’s a lot I don’t know  here – I don’t know how Townsend identifies in terms of her size, nor do I  know what role racism played in the situation, and I don’t know all of her thoughts about it. I am sorry that USTA decided to politicize her body, and I’m happy that she is having such triumph in spite of being caught up in our cultural obsession with thin.

Let me also be super clear that no type of exercise, including being involved in sport, is an obligation or barometer of worthiness. My concern is about people who want to pursue athletics and are discouraged because they don’t have the “right body.”  Athletic performance is about strength, stamina, flexibility, and technique  – and  the results depend on a combination of what you’re born with and what you’re able to achieve through hard work. Things go very wrong when people get confused and think that these things, done “correctly”  will produce a certain type of body.  Townsend’s run in with this was very public but often it all happens behind the scenes.  It happens to kids when those who are interested in sports but don’t “look athletic” aren’t given time or attention from coaches.  It happens when fat athletes are encouraged to give up their sport until they look different regardless of their abilities. It happens when companies that make athletic gear use not making clothing for fat people as a point of pride and marketing strategy. It happens when fat people who dare to participate in sport are moo’d at, or have eggs thrown at us.   The lack of fat athletes becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and is then used as proof that fat people can’t be athletic.

And it’s not just in athletics,  it’s part of a larger consequence of our society’s relentless obsession with thin, and the constant confusion of a stereotype of beauty with everything from health, to fitness, to talent, to morality.  A thin body is a requisite to have any other achievement recognized.  You’re the number one ranked tennis player in the country but are you thin? You’re a fantastic mother but are you thin?  You’re great at your job but are you thin?  You cured cancer but are you thin?

Nobody has any obligation to do activism around this or anything else, and I think it’s important to remember that  “If I can do it, anybody can!” is a massive lie. That said, one way to do activism is to follow our dreams, show up to do the things we want to do – whether that’s play tennis or competing in Scrabble tournaments or swimming at the local pool or whatever – unapologetically in fat bodies.

As fat people in a fatphobic society, refusing to hate ourselves is a defiant act of revolution.  So is showing up in our lives for the things we want to do – whether that’s playing tennis or competing in Scrabble tournaments or swimming at the local pool or whatever – unapologetically in fat bodies. So is refusing to bow to pressure from people who insist that owe them the body that their stereotypes and prejudices demand. The opposition we receive is proof both of the necessity, and the effectiveness of our activism.   It’s a risk of course, and not a risk that anyone is ever required to take.  For me, I believe that risk is the currency of revolution, I want a revolution, so I’ll take the risk.

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Published in: on May 29, 2014 at 12:11 pm  Comments (41)  

41 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I watched her play (admittedly on television) this morning at Roland Garros. she is AMAZING. Here’s a blurb from the French Open Website:

    The controversy began in September 2012 when Townsend was denied a wildcard to either the main or even the qualifying draw of the US Open. In fact, the USTA asked her not to compete in the junior tournament and refused to pay tournament-related expenses, with Patrick McEnroe, general manager of the USTA’s player development programme, citing her “long-term health…and long-term development as a player” in order to encourage the 16-year-old to lose weight and get into shape.

    The move sparked a firestorm of controversy, drawing in the likes of Grand Slam champion Lindsay Davenport. By winning the Har-Tru USTA Pro Circuit Wild Card Challenge this year however, she was afforded an automatic berth into the main draw as part of a reciprocal agreement between federations.

    *****************************************************************

    Uh. Does anyone remember that Serena Williams hasn’t always *looked* as fit as she is now? Remarks were made about how she played but I didn’t see anyone denying her anything. Her tennis racquet spoke volumes, and she is one of the best.

    Ms. Townsend is my new favorite women’s tennis player!

    • I’ve seen Serena called fat too…. as if her muscular legs should also be stick thin…. This week she appeared at someone’s wedding wearing a leotard and the photos (not photoshopped) showed some “cellulite” like puckering.. just like nearly every woman has. Some of the comments were just horrid, I’m not going to repeat them but I am sure you can guess at what the gist was.

  2. My philosophy in doing things I love, i.e., swimming, dancing, living life, is if you don’t like it, don’t look! I’m not covering up my body with items that weigh me down when I want to move, and this is the only time I really don’t care about the whispers and looks given when I stride out to the water’s edge or pool’s edge and dive in! When I feel like dancing, I dance. I wish I could incorporate this attitude in the rest of my life, but I am trying to. Phooey on the attitudes that exclude size acceptance!

  3. I just left the following message on the USTA site:

    Patrick McEnroe is a bigot, the same kind of bigot that is Donald Sterling. Thin doesn’t equate with healthy nor does fat equate with unhealthy. That is a medical fact. Public humiliation of a 16-year old based upon the social prejudices of a political science major is unconscionable. Just because McEnroe doesn’t like fat girls doesn’t give him the right to deny a proven athlete her chance to compete. Shame on you. McEnroe should be fired.

  4. Unbelieveable! And what about all those football players, weightlifters? If their ‘bigger’ bodies generate cash it’s no problem to anybody. It’s too much to digest.

    • I cannot tell you how often I wish to throw something at the TV when a sports broadcaster says something to the effect of “wow, he can really move for a big guy” in reference to one of the big dudes in American Football–like an Offensive Lineman. Well, duh, he’s a professional freaking athlete! *head-desk*

      • Exactly. I remember trying to lose weight at my senior year at high school. I exercised for an hour every day for a few months. I still was chubbier than the rest of the girls at class but after those few months at PE I was the best at long distance run.
        The world is so doublefaced. On one hand they say it’s doesn’t matter how you look but on the other nothing else matters but your skinny b…tt.

      • Also, I remember when the ill health of retired football players was blamed on them having “let themselves” get fat. I was assuming it was the cumulative effect of bodily injuries and painkillers.

        It turned out that head trauma was the major factor.

  5. They tell us we can’t do things because we’re fat… then when a fat person does that thing, they are told to stop doing it until they are thin.

    Can we say ‘self-fulfilling prophecy?’ Or possibly ‘willful blindness?’

    Me? I’m going to that Scrabble championship… or the pool… or wherever the hell I want to go and can come up with the ability to do. And if anyone tells me I can’t do it because I’m fat, get ready to hear a huge belly laugh… or possibly a fire and brimstone sermon on prejudice, depending on how I feel in that moment.

    Oh, and Lupe? Your message to McEnroe? Rawks!

  6. There’s a local water park I used to go to when I was a teenager. I loved it. When I hit about 160 lbs. I stopped going because I felt I was “too fat” to be in a bathing suit. Every year, I resolved to lose weight. THIS year, I said, I’d go back to that fun water park because I’d be skinny enough. Yet every year, after dieting, I’d wind up heavier than when the year began, and I’d hide.

    But you know what? I’m going to that water park this year. I’m going to the beach. I live in San Diego, and it’s ridiculous that I don’t ever go to the beach–all because I’m afraid I might offend someone. If society wants me to model good athletic behaviors, such as swimming and beach-going, for my children, then they need to get over seeing me in public.

    • GOOD FOR YOU!!!

    • Enjoy the beach! I spent way too many years of my life worrying about what other people think of me. Now, I pretty much don’t give a damn. If they’re offended by my body, that’s their problem, not mine, and I refuse to make it my problem.

      Stepping off the weight loss merry go round was one of the best decisions I ever made, and this blog constantly reinforces that. So go have fun! You deserve it.

  7. My own experiences with sports/physical activity have convinced me that the idea of a “right” body type for anything is bullshit.

    I’m tall. At 5’8″, I’m only slightly tall for an adult woman, but I grew early, reaching my full height at 13, so as a kid I was always notably taller than most of my peers. It was a regular occurrence for people, usually adults, to ask if I played basketball. When I started middle school, I switched to a school that had a basketball team and decided to give it a whirl. I sucked. A lot. Being tall did precisely nothing to compensate for the fact that I’m not a fast runner, or that my proprioception/spatial reasoning/coordination leave a lot to be desired. No amount of hard work or extra practice I put in over the two years I played (and I worked pretty damn hard) made much of a difference either. And the two best girls on my team were at least six inches shorter than I was.

    In contrast, I also spent a good chunk of my childhood doing ballet. I do not have what would typically be considered a “dancer’s body.” Although I am tall, I have a long torso, so I’m not “leggy,” and I’ve never been thin. But strength and flexibility come pretty naturally to me and I have a decent sense of musicality and rhythm. My issues with coordination definitely made themselves known, but I could overcome and compensate for them with experience and practice. I wasn’t destined for a professional company or anything, but I was pretty good.

    I suppose that if a person also has all of the other athletic abilities necessary to do a certain sport, a certain body type might offer some sort of advantage, but it’s definitely not a requirement for or a guarantee of success.

    • Oh my do I hear you. I have always dreaded the “oh? you’re 6′ tall? you must have played volleyball/basketball!” No and no. I’m not super coordinated, my hips keep me from running, and I just don’t get competitive so sports really are not my thing! Even at 32 people say ask this. I left high school ages ago! Can we please eliminate school sports talk as ice breakers/idle chat from conversations at this point in our lives? I mean, no one ever asks me what my grade point average was… why do sports matter so much!?

  8. I’m so angry right now, I could spit.

    I just got off a chat with my ex-husband. He has a back problem that is causing him excruciating pain. He has been told by his ortho that he can’t have receive back surgery because it is “unsafe” at his weight…but he should have weight loss surgery to lose weight. Because it’s safe to have medically unnecessary surgery to make your body less frightening to the bigots, but it’s not safe to have surgery to improve your health and quality of life.

    • Time for a new doc. I hope he can get what he needs.😦

    • If he loses weight, then after the surgery he’ll gain extra and then what will the doctors say? Makes no sense.

      That happened to a friend of ours through our camping club, his knees blew out and he couldn’t walk, but they wouldn’t do the surgery until he lost weight. The only way to do that would be to starve.

      • Yeah. That will be thevcase with my ex until he gets bsck surgery. He is in so much pain that he can’t even make it to work at a desk job.

  9. I’ve been struggling with depression, which amplifies the body image issues I’d probably have anyway, and I gained about 60lbs due to the medication I was on for a while. Too often, I want to hide from the world and a big part of it is wanting to hide my body. I’ll be honest reading fat activism blogs can be a double-edged sword because I fear being treated the way fat people tend to report being treated.

    But I find your posts to be empowering and they’re helping me return my focus to my health (mental, physical, and otherwise), especially when my body image issues are reinforced by others. The nurse at my primary care provider assumes my goal is to lose weight and even mentioned surgery as an option (albeit one she didn’t think I’d want to pursue right now). Do you have any advice for asking her to support my efforts to be healthier without focusing on weight loss?

    I especially love your encouragement in this post to go do the things we want to do anyway, unapologetically, in fat bodies. It’s not “just” revolution, it’s vital to our mental health! For depression especially, withdrawal from society and isolation can be deadly. How dare people encourage that – encourage people to give up activities they love (that’s a symptom of depression, by the way) – because they only want to see certain bodies!? Thank you so much for being such a strong voice against bigotry and in support of health for everyone.

  10. Thank you so much for telling us about Taylor Townsend. I had quit following tennis, because the reporting on women’s tennis seemed to grow stupider by the day. I look forward to cheering for Taylor.

    May the day come swiftly when the idiocy comes to an end, and we appreciate all human beings for who they are and what they do.

  11. 1. I need to talk to my niece, who has a tennis scholarship for college next year, about Taylor! They’re the same age, so I have no doubt she’s following Taylor’s career.

    2. Tennis pro or not, she’s cute as a button.😀 Filip Peliwo certainly doesn’t seem to mind getting a kiss on the cheek from her! LOL, teenage boys.

    3. Anyone who doubts she can hand them their ass is delusional.

    4. Trying to lose weight would negatively impact her game, and would give haters just another excuse to dismiss her.

    5. Major props to Sheila Townsend, for supporting her daughter even when it might have been easier to bow to pressure.

    (On the racism front, if you look at hominid evolution, people of European and Far Asian descent tend to be primarily or (in the case of SE Asian peoples) exclusively descended from early H. sapiens sapiens/Cro Magnon, which tend towards a lighter frame than H. sapiens neanderthalis (dominant in Western and Central Asia) and much of the H. sapiens africanis tree when taken as a whole. There was a lot of interbreeding between the three H. sapiens groups, especially in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and parts of Central Asia. However, as a general rule, peoples of African, Middle Eastern, or Central Asian descent will tend towards curvier figures than whites or people from East or Southeast Asia, including Native Americans, who descend from ancient Siberian peoples who came to North America via the Bering Strait crossing. Based on hominid lineage, I find it no coincidence that sizeism carries with it overt racist elements.)

    • That is interesting on the evolution front. So this racism goes waaay back.

  12. Just had an e-mail from a friend of mine who is struggling with body image because she can’t find good workout clothes or formal work clothes without paying a fortune. She’s a 12-14.

    GODDAMN our society.

  13. The only thing I find weird about that picture of Taylor is the angle of her neck. Must be a weird photo angle…

    I don’t get it. If you’re an athlete and you’re performing to the set standards for that sport (and performing in a top-notch capacity), what does it matter what you look like?

  14. I am plus sized……….. the coaches at the facility I used to swim almost always paid a whole lot of attention to. you guessed it… young and the thin………….. so I taught myself……….. I am a self taught swimmer and proud of it………….

  15. I spent a large portion of my life with the internalized struggle of feeling nothing I accomplished mattered because I was fat. Graduated third in your high school but you’re not thin so big deal. First in your immediate family to get a college education but you’re not thin so big deal. And on and on.

    I don’t want anyone else to spend a moment denigrating their own accomplishments and triumphs because they’re not thin. Dammit! It’s a crappy way to go through life. I speak from experience on this one.

  16. My grandmother always promised me Irish step dancing lessons, but it was contingent upon losing weight. Considering my BMI was still NORMAL at the time, it says a lot about my family.

    Last year, she mentioned to me that she hoped my then not-yet-three year old nephew might want to take the lessons… she said something like “at least I can still hope maybe Daniel will want to take them.”

    It took every ounce of self-restraint to not say, “well I wanted them… you just deiced I was too fat to have them.” I regret now, very much, that I didn’t say it. It would’ve caused problems, but I realize now how very angry part of me still is for all the body shaming she did to me (and allowed my aunt to do to me). So yeah. One time I showed restraint and wish I hadn’t.

    Good for Taylor Townsend… I hope she continues to kick ass!

    • That is just awful. And here in lies the absolute stupidity in your grandmother’s decision. She was promising you an activity IF you lost weight when being active is the key to good health (and for many people weight loss). No healthy activity should be “earned” by child or adult based on weight loss. I used to think the same way about expensive ballroom dancing lessons for myself. Then I said screw it b/c dancing was good for me whether or not it caused weight loss. I only don’t do it now b/c I’m so broke! But, as soon as I graduate school I’m back at it again. I hope you were able to get your classes/lessons eventually.

      My grandmother is constantly calling me to tell me that I need to lose weight. It has gotten so bad that I avoid my 85 y.o. Grandma’s phone calls. She also calls me to harass me about babies (which I want so badly but have a condition that makes it difficult to conceive). She has done so much for me, but I can’t deal with her b/c she can’t just accept that I’m an adult and know my health. I find it sad that a grandparent would allow herself to poison her relationship the way yours and mine have/are doing.

      • Hi Sisi,

        Thanks for your comment, it’s great to hear from a fellow ballroom dancer :)  I’m really sorry that you are having to deal with the situation with your grandma.  I wanted to clarify one thing about your comment.  You said that “activity is the key to health (and for many people weight loss)”  In actuality, while it can contribute to health, activity is certainly not “the key” since many factors, both within and outside of our control, determine health.  And there is absolutely no research showing that it leads to long-term weight loss in more than a tiny fraction of participants. In fact research shows that exercise can support health, most people who exercise don’t lose weight and many gain weight.  It’s one of the major issues with what you so rightly pointed out is the problem of using weight loss as a criteria for “successful” activity.

        Thanks!

        ~Ragen

        ________________________________

        • Yes, it really depends on the person. Although I think activity is important for everyone who can be active. I personally don’t see a lot of weight loss via activity, but I love that I get stronger and more agile. I have heard so many friends say they won’t go to the gym/dance studio/bike trail/whatever b/c they are afraid of thin people judging them, I wish they realized that most people are too self centered to care (and who cares if they do judge screw them!).

          I’m giant amateur in comparison to you, but my husband and I enjoy the heck out of dancing! I just wish we had more time to go out and do it between school and other obligations! I often let what other people think stop me, but that’s silly. I can’t limit my life based on what other people think. I do love my grandmother, but she is one of the most irritating people in my life, my mother is a saint for having her live under the same roof!🙂

          • Hi Sisi,

            I totally agree with you about activities being hostile for people of size – I definitely hear from a lot of people who are scared about how they are going to be treated. Everyone deserves an environment where they are treated with respect!  I will push back on one more thing, you said “I think activity is important for everyone who can be active.”  I would like to suggest that activity is important for those who choose to make it important.  Nobody is obligated to do activity of any kind regardless of ability, health status or anything else.  Thanks for the conversation!

            ~Ragen

            ________________________________

  17. in another forum the people who bitched that she was too fat claimed that the USTA only acted to prevent injuries in somebody so young, because that extra weight puts allegedly so much more pressure on her joints. that’s bullshit, of course, and doesn’t even jive with the USTA’s own story (which coincidentally changed several times). it’s concern-trolling at its “finest” and it’s utter claptrap. what prevents injuries to your joints is strong muscles surrounding them, and solid movement through the range of motion of the joint during practice. and extra lbs makes no difference (since the extra isn’t suddenly heaped on, which would make a difference, but it grows over time and her body is used to it). it looks to me like taylor has plenty of muscles — look at those arms under tension! gaining muscle while losing fat is actually demonstrably difficult; most people who do this regularly (like body builders) bulk up first and then cut fat afterwards. but taylor isn’t a body builder, so there is no need for her to cut fat. though maybe the USTA has a deal with maxim? i don’t believe that this is at all about taylor’s health.

    of course fitness needs to be a concern, but what they should look at is not her weight or how she looks, but how she performs, not just in tournaments but at her daily workouts. i looked for a statement by her personal coach kathy rinaldi and couldn’t find one. interesting. exactly what aspect of her fitness was lacking? how was she supposed to improve?

    i think anyone going into professional athletics has to be concerned with the potential for injuries because they are par for the course when you’re pushing your body to and beyond its limits. but i am glad taylor dumped the USTA and its judgmental head of player development patrick mcenroe (brother of john) and signed on with somebody who groks that size and fitness has nothing to do with each other. hope she kicks ass, and i hope the USTA gets to regret its decision to discourage a promising tennis player at an age where girls need more encouragement and less fat shaming to set them on a good path.

  18. Reblogged this on Sly Fawkes and commented:
    Ugh, this tired old tune again. A person could be the strongest, most athletic individual in the world. Ze could have perfect lab readings across the board. Ze could have the best stamina known to humanity. But if ze isn’t the picture of svelteness, forget it. Ze is not worthy.
    I need to go barf now.

  19. Oh the old “You can’t be fit because you don’t look it” prejudice. I mean, never mind that she’s excelling in a sport that requires high levels of strength, cardio and stamina. She’s just not marketable and thin enough body wise, so they decided to continue the body shaming, unscientific stigma that comes along with misconception about body size health and fitness. I know darn well they watch the Olympics and see the variety of body sizes from the athletes. Women’s college softball, and NFL football as well. It’s all superficial, because tennis player Anna Kournikova was sponsered all over the place without a successful tennis career, no one questioned her fitness, or anything, but I guess she had the body and look to represent tennis huh?

    This is done to us vegans too because you can’t be a vegan if you’re fat right ? I remember rapper T.I.’s son mentioned being a vegan, and he’s not the standard thin child. I guess only thin people represent everything healthy, according to da interwebz doctors. It’s sad this minor was subjected to the public humiliation of body shaming.

    I wish Michelle Obama re-evaluated this crack down on people’s health and lifestyles she created, because the body shaming of anyone, let alone children is Unacceptable. It’s caused more harm than good. There’s no way a physically active and fit child should be subjected to faux health concern, because her body doesn’t fit the part looks wise, that’s injustice to me.

    • In my book, this all boils down to sexism. Who is making the complaint about her weight? Male authorities. Who complained about Tara Erraught? Male critics.

      God forbid a large woman should become comfortable about her size, because if she becomes comfortable and happy, other women might, too, and THEN what happens to the male sexual gaze?

      • To be fair, I did hear news commentators being astonished a 300 pound football player could run fast. Because only thin people can run. Or football players are supposed to be thin. Or something.

        • Yes, but when it’s males commenting on other males, there’s often an edge of positive amazement and congratulations to it. They think it’s AWESOME when The Fridge can run 72 yards for a touchdown. It’s SPECIAL. But let a fat girl do something similar? They get angry.

          They don’t tell the guy who ran that he shouldn’t have run because he’s obviously not fit. If a 300-lb. man can be considered fit and play a sport for a living? Then so can a fat woman.

  20. It was a male and female commentator, and they weren’t amazed, they were surprised. It was clear they didn’t think the fat guy should be able to run.

    • Was it the shaking their head in disgust kind of amazement? Or was it the admiration kind?

      • Just flat out astonishment.


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