At 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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