Last week, when Serena Williams defeated Garbine Muguruza to win her 6th Wimbledon title and fourth straight major, she accomplished, for the second time, a feat so rare it bears her name: The Serena Slam. If she wins the U.S. Open this fall, Williams will become the first player in 27 years – male or female – to complete the calendar-year grand slam. As Williams proved, once again, that she is one of the greatest athletes of all time, fans, including First Lady Michelle Obama, took to Twitter to congratulate the champion:
Wow! Huge congrats to @SerenaWilliams for her win at Wimbledon. We're all so proud of you! -mo
— The First Lady (@FLOTUS) July 11, 2015
But, even before the First Lady could post her congratulations, British author J.K. Rowling completed a slam of her own after someone named “Rob” replied to her tweet celebrating William’s win. “Rob” opined that the “main reason for her success is that she is built like a man.” A trip through “Rob’s” Twitter feed shows that he’s not the only one who chose the occasion to criticize William’s body and offer expert advice (mostly, but not entirely, from men) about what is and is not the “ideal feminine form.”
Rowling quickly dispensed with Rob, correctly diagnosing him as “an idiot.”
Good for her. This is not the first time what should simply be a celebration of a woman’s accomplishment – whether on a tennis court, a soccer field, a debate stage or in a boardroom – has quickly turned to a discussion of her appearance, and it won’t be the last.
Today, I know at least as much about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits as I do about her foreign policy positions and more about former Vice Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin’s shoes, hair, glasses and shopping sprees than her record as governor of Alaska.
Every time this happens, women are diminished.
Women face a litany of unrealistic expectations about our bodies and our behavior. Like an I.V. drip, mass media delivers a constant stream of content telling us that if we just try hard enough and are willing to spend enough, we can achieve both health and some idealized version of the feminine form. And, if we do, maybe – just maybe – we will be be good enough for someone to love.
Huge segments of our economy depend on women buying into this destructive paradigm. It’s really no surprise that in 2017, the global beauty market is expected to reach $265 billion.
The economic incentive to keep women feeling “not quite good enough” is enormous, so it’s no wonder that even though most reject the unrealistic expectations placed on women, our choices are still impacted by these persuasive and pervasive messages.
I’m no exception. In my bathroom, I have an entire drawer of cosmetics and normally spend a few minutes at the makeup mirror before I head out of the house. The fact that at 55, my hair looks an awful lot like it did when I was 25, has more to do with my hairdresser than with good genes. And speaking of jeans, there’s more than one pair of “good” ones in my closet, purchased after agonizing in front of a store’s 360° mirror. If you’re a woman, I’m betting you can relate. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with caring about how we present ourselves to the world, awareness of the reasons for our choices and acknowledgment of the forces at play is important.
So, it matters when those who have an audience, like Rowling, speak up rather than ignoring inane comments from the “Rob’s” of the world. Why? Because it’s not just an issue of “political correctness,” but instead directly impacts women’s health, wealth and success.
By speaking up, Rowling encouraged others to do the same, not just in the Rob-generated Twitter war, but also in our own social circles. Too often, when women speak up about body image issues or gender equality, we are shamed into silence — sometimes even by other women, who would rather have peace at the dinner table than deal with the fact that it’s not okay that Uncle Ed just called former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a “girl.” We are silent rather than risk making people “uncomfortable” or being called a “femi-Nazi”- or worse.
Body-shaming and a lifelong campaign pursuing the “ideal” feminine form — whatever that is — is a cultural expectation that has devastating psychological and physical consequences for women.
Yet, there are things we can do in Georgia to change this deeply ingrained, destructive paradigm.
For instance, we can take steps to address Georgia’s poor record of offering girls the opportunity to participate in athletics.
Participation in sports can enhance adolescent girls’ physical health, self-esteem and body image. Yet, at a time when young girls have ready role models in athletes like the United States Women’s Soccer Team and Serena Williams, Georgia ranks dead last in the nation in Title IX compliance.
More than 2/3rds of Georgia high schools have large opportunity gaps for girls to participate in sports.
At the same time, Georgia has the 8th highest obesity rate in the country for children 10-17, and girls are more likely than boys to suffer from the epidemic.
As female athletes like Serena Williams successfully challenge the “traditional” views of feminine beauty, we should lift them up as examples and make sure girls have the opportunity to follow in their footsteps.
By closing the athletic opportunity gap in Georgia we can help address the obesity epidemic in our state and give more young girls the chance to learn to love their bodies and never allow “Rob” define for them what it means to be feminine.