Glitter & Bruises: Professional Athletes like Serena Williams in the Masculine World of Sports

People call Serena Williams’ bulky build “manly.” Ballerina Misty Copeland has been criticized as being “too muscular.” And Rhonda Rousey gets torn apart for being “too masculine.”

These criticisms drive me crazy for a variety of reasons, but mostly, I can’t help but think: the more female athletes are labeled as “masculine,” the more athletic prowess gets conflated with masculinity.  As if muscle mass, power, and aggression and being feminine don’t go together.

News flash: It’s the 21st century. There’s no reason men should maintain exclusive ownership of powerful attributes when it comes to sports. After all, female athletes demonstrate incredible strength and physicality daily (shout out to the U.S. women’s soccer team), AND most girls in sports today understand that, to be an athlete, they have to be strong, powerful, and sometimes even a little aggressive.

But as girls hone their bodies and their minds to be athletes, should they really feel “less feminine” for it? If a girl is known for being a bruiser, should she feel boyish? If a girl’s strong calves bulge in her skinny jeans, should she really feel “un-girly?”

Let’s take a look at powerful athletic attributes for what they are: Serena’s broad shoulders are the strength behind her 120mph serve. Misty Copeland’s muscular build enables her to leap weightlessly through the air. And Rhonda Rousey’s aggressive attitude helps her knockout opponents and win matches. They’re impressive strengths, neither “masculine” nor “feminine.”

In Lindsey Vonn’s documentary The Climb, Lindsey is shown applying makeup in preparation for her knee surgery.  I have to admit, when I watched that part of the film for the first time, I cringed. The friend in me thought, “Aw Linds, you really don’t need the makeup.” And the feminist in me thought, “Great, now the girls will think they need to wear makeup to be beautiful.” But then, as if she were answering me, Lindsey explained as she painted on eye liner, “I don’t want to feel like a ragamuffin in the hospital.”

The truth is, she was putting on makeup because it made her feel good. Not to please someone else. Or to look a certain way. Or to be sexy. She just plain: wanted to feel good.

So I stopped and checked myself. And I concluded, “who cares?” Seriously. Who cares if an athlete wears makeup for her competitions or her knee surgery? Lindsey is not only an athlete, she’s also a woman. Just because she does sports, doesn’t mean that she can’t be a girl.* She’s entitled to feel feminine and beautiful, whatever that means to her.**

At the end of the day, it is more harmful to label Serena as “masculine” than it is helpful. And it is straight up unfair to scoff at expressions of femininity, like makeup or ribbons, in the world of sports – after all, female athletes are women and girls just as much as they are strong athletes.

It’s time to give girls permission to be girls.

If a female boxer feels so confident during a pre-match interview that she boldly calls the win, who cares? It isn’t any more cocky than her male counterpart doing the same, and there’s no reason self-confidence in women should be considered “manly.” And if a girl wants to paint her nails and tie ribbons in her hair on game day, who cares? If it helps her feel confident and spirited, then it sounds like a win in my book. Drop the labels and embrace our female athletes for what, and who, they are.

So, to all of the haters who call strong women masculine: stop it. A strong woman is strong. And strong does not necessarily equal masculine.

To all of the girls lifting weights and getting muddy: You have permission to be YOU. Permission granted to be an athlete and a girl.

And to all of the girls who wear ribbons and glitter on game day: You have permission to be YOU. Permission granted to be an athlete and a girl.


*For the record: there is a difference between being objectified and being a girl. The sexualization of female athletes is a very large and separate topic in and of itself, and one that I am intentionally setting aside for today. When I say that athletes have the right to be “girly” or feminine (whatever that means to them), I’m NOT saying that female athletes should be sexual or sexualized. There’s a difference between feeling feminine and confident in your skin, and being “sexy.” While the two may be interrelated for many, there is a difference between expressing sexuality and expressing femininity.

**Of course gender is fluid, and every girl expresses her femininity (or masculinity) in ways that make sense and feel good to her. This is not to suggest that girls who choose not to “be girly” in the traditional sense, are any less female.


Photo Credit: WikiMedia Commons

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