No one puts Taylor Townsend in the Hefty Hideaway.
On Wednesday afternoon, the 18-year-old American tennis phenom unexpectedly defeated 24-year-old French person Alize Cornet, reaching the third round of the French Open. “After she won she smiled wide and danced in the rain,” reported the Wall Street Journal, in a way I found so delightfully lyrical I looked at the byline and saw that the writer was novelist Tom Perrotta until I Googled and realized it was a different Tom Perrotta. (Lovely writing, other Tom Perrotta.) “Townsend has become the tournament darling with her daring play and charm,” other-Tom-Perrotta notes. “Even Andy Murray, watching on television, raved about her game, and her smile, on Twitter.”
Here is Andy Murray, raving:
You can see highlights of the match over at Sports Illustrated. It’s the 205th-ranked Townsend’s first-ever Grand Slam tournament; she got there as a wild card, by playing amazingly throughout the year, and she’s now the youngest player left in the Open. Perrotta quotes her reaction to her win: “’Oh my god I can’t believe it!’ she said, covering her eyes. Asked how far she could go at this event, she said, ‘Sky’s the limit.’”
Aww, right? (Though ever the cynic, I am racing to get this post up before tomorrow’s match. which she’s expected to lose.) In any case, cut that awww off at the pass, people, because in 2012, when Townsend was the #1 ranked juniors player in the world, the United States Tennis Association decided she was too fat to be allowed to play.
As Perrotta reported then, her coaches refused to pay her travel expenses so she could attend the Open that year, and announced that they wouldn’t pay for any future tournaments “until she makes sufficient progress in one area: slimming down and getting into better shape.” The USTA’s Patrick McEnroe said, “Our concern is her long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player.” That was super-considerate, what with her being #1 in the entire world and all. With a little less junk in her trunk she could have been number…oh wait.
Perrotta reported that Townsend’s mother, a former competitive player herself, couldn’t get a straight answer from the USTA about why her daughter was being sidelined or what she could do to be cleared to play again. “I asked a lot of questions about what they meant by fitness, if they had a standard or a measurement,” she said. “If there are numbers to go by, then you can’t argue with numbers — I understand that.” McEnroe insisted that it was just, y’know, FITNESS. “This has nothing to do with weight,” he said. “We never talked about that…it’s about how fit you are.” FIT. REASONS OF FIT. She merely needed to be be more fit than the other people who were ranked #1.
So let’s see. Black girl. Muscular. Thick, you might say. Also, strong as hell and a super-smart player with a great attitude who was, let’s repeat this a few more times, RANKED #1. Could this be, I dunno, sizeism? racism? lookism? (Even though she was and is adorable? But not, like ALIZE CORNET ADORABLE. If you know what I mean. And I think you do.) (Also, may I point out that the Williams sisters got an earful about how they looked.)
Townsend’s mom paid out of pocket for her daughter to attend the 2012 Open. Before Taylor arrived, though, her doctor discovered that she actually had a serious iron deficiency. She was treated before the competition and made it to the quarterfinals, but afterward switched coaches (to Zina Garrison, who is still her coach today). Later, she said of the USTA’s announcement, “I cried. I was actually devastated. I mean, I worked really hard, you know. It’s not by a miracle that I got to number one.” Sounding very much like a teenager, she added, “I’m not saying that to be conceited or anything.” (I love her.)
Other female tennis stars were horrified by the USTA’s stance. “I’m livid about it. Livid. It speaks of horrible ignorance,” said Martina Navratilova. “You cannot punish someone for their body type,” Lindsay Davenport said. Navratilova pointed out that for Townsend to lose weight, she’d have to starve herself in a way that would hurt her game. (“It is absolutely insane what they did, so irresponsible….to throw this on her at 16? I’m trying to be nice here, but they totally blew it on this one.”) Davenport added that this is no way to treat or motivate young girls. “Bringing out their best isn’t making them feel bad about themselves and having a horrible self-image,” she said. “You get it out of them by getting them happy, by getting them excited to play, not by tearing them down.”
The USTA ultimately reimbursed the Townsends for their expenses and apologized –in a pretty mediocre way. If this apology were a tennis player, it would be Patrick McEnroe, not John McEnroe.
Here’s the apology: “It was a miscommunication,” said Patrick McEnroe. “I apologize that they feel that way, it’s not right.”
In a classic SorryWatch no–no, McEnroe neglected to apologize to Townsend herself before talking to the media about how sorry he was if Townsend was hurt. (The “if” in “I apologize that they feel that way” is silent. Actually, it’s not silent; it just sounds exactly like “that.”) Perrotta called Townsend’s mom and relayed McEnroe’s words to her. He nicely deadpanned her response: “Shelia Townsend, reached by telephone, was glad to hear the news. ‘I didn’t know that,’ she said. ‘I’ll have to get my receipts together.'”
In terms of apology-ranking, I might point out that McEnroe’s “it’s not right” takes no ownership of the offense, and in fact, sounds as though the problem in question was that Townsend and her family “felt that way,” not that the USTA did a vile thing. And when someone asks you point blank what constitutes a lack of fitness and how the unfit person could be deemed more fit, and repeatedly is denied an answer, but you say to the press over and over that the person is not fit, how exactly is this a miscommunication?
As the Bleacher Report points out, the USTA has a bit of a history of racism and sizeism, and concludes, “If your physique looks like Serena Williams, perhaps the best women’s player in history, what more needs be said?”
I can think of one more thing, actually. While looking up Alize Cornet for this post, I found a news story from 2008 about a senior official in men’s tennis calling her “a little sexpot.” Fellow willowy blond Tatiana Golovin was also deemed a sexpot. Anna Kournikova did not fare as well even though she is also willowy blonde and pretty. “I have no attraction to her because she’s such a douche,” stated Justin Gimelstob, director of the Association of Tennis Professionals, who is surely not a douche. He also called Kournikova a bitch, and concluded, “I really have no interest in her…I wouldn’t mind having my younger brother, who’s a kind of a stud, nail her and then reap the benefits of that. She has a great body but her face is a five.”
In other words, whether you look like Townsend or Cornet, you’re not a person. You’re an object. It doesn’t matter how good you are: your body is unappealing or your body is banging but your face is a 5, or maybe you’re a little sexpot and the body and the face are both doing the job (that is, of being appealing) but never, never forget that your primary objective, whoever you are and whatever you look like, if you are a Person of Vagina, is to be decorative. Which you are sure to fail at, in someone’s view, eventually. Where’s that #YesAllWomen hashtag when you need it.
‘There is no excuse and I am extremely disappointed in myself. I take full responsibility for all the words that came out of my mouth, and, while I can’t take any of them back, I hope my heartfelt remorse can begin to heal the wounds felt by many.
‘Among the targets of my venom was Anna Kournikova, not to mention a general disregard and disrespect toward women.
‘They all deserve and have my deepest apologies. While I see how it could be implied by my remarks, I assure you that I have the utmost respect for women.
‘As a small symbol of my contrition I will be making a donation to The Women’s Sports Foundation, which works to expand opportunities for girls and women through sports and physical activity.’
Well, yes, we do see how your disregard and disrespect for women could be implied by your remarks. And no, you do not have the utmost respect for women. Because you said what you said. The donation’s nice, and the charity in question was a good choice. But still, shudder. (Also, you’re a 5. Tops.)
Historically, Black girls in America have had a better body image than white girls. There are multiple possible reasons; one, as Vashti Dotson writes, is that “[t]here seems to be less social and cultural pressure for African-American women to equate beauty and thinness, and to conform to the standards that are largely based and validated on the image and figures of White women.” (Sadly, this appears to be changing, and the rates of eating disorders in minority communities are on the rise.)
Here’s a big duh: It’s great for girls of all shapes and sizes to see women athletes of all shapes and sizes — the Townsends and the Cornets. There is a huge spectrum of beauty and talent. I won’t argue that no one should be objectified (I have too much admiration for Aaron Rogers’s limpid, limpid eyes for that) but is it so damn hard to watch your damn mouth, to be respectful, to put the game and the talent first, to think about your own biases, and to learn what it means to NOT BE DISGUSTING?