Female Athletes and Body Image

Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Quest for Success - NYTimes.com

Williams, who will be vying for the Wimbledon title against Garbiñe Muguruza on Saturday, has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.

Despite Williams’s success — a victory Saturday would give her 21 Grand Slam singles titles and her fourth in a row — body-image issues among female tennis players persist, compelling many players to avoid bulking up.

Two things immediately strike me as absurd about this story: that fashion-world aesthetic standards are applied to athletes, and that the athletes themselves give a damn about those standards.

But then again, I’m at least sipping the kool-aid of the CrossFit world, where the top female athletes are nearly as burly as most males in other sports, and who usually say they want to get even bigger and stronger.

CrossFit is a very young sport, and has had more than its share of growing pains, but among the things the CrossFit community has done right, the most positive is the promotion of the primacy of performance. Aesthetics are acknowledged, but looks are considered to be a reflection of health and performance; an external indicator of internal states. In stark contrast to many fitness venues, the vast majority of CF boxes[1] don’t even have mirrors.

That doesn’t stop the objectification of either gender in CrossFit, but it does influence the perception. The CrossFit promotional video Beauty in Strength is guilty of selecting some of the most aesthetically pleasing women involved in CF, but the focus on strength and the changes in body-image the women themselves express is quite different from the mainstream fitness industry, and apparently more positive than the self-image of athletes in other sports. An article in the CrossFit Journal, “Saved by the Barbell” talked about the overwhelmingly positive effect the pro-fitness bias in CrossFit has had on women who have often had psychological issues in the past about their weight, stature, or tendency to put on muscle.

Williams would be one of the skinnier women out there if she were competing in the CrossFit Games. Non-CF publications like Shape, Men’s Fitness, and The Athletic Build have compiled galleries of the “hottest”[2] women in CF, and you can see that the most girly of them is arguably more muscular than Williams. Maybe Williams should consider getting into CrossFit instead. I’m pretty sure it would be better for her self-image than tennis.


  1. CF-style gyms are called “boxes” in the community. I would say all CrossFit boxes don’t have mirrors, but since there’s nothing like a universal format, there might be a couple of places with a full-length mirror or two somewhere. Certainly nothing like the wall of mirrors at your typical Gold’s, though.  ↩

  2. I put that in scare quotes because it’s a loaded term, to say the least.  ↩