The Kournikova Effect: Why Are We So Obsessed with the Female Tennis Body?

By Kristen Cochrane. Kristen is a writer and academic in Ontario, Canada, who’s researching some very interesting things, like queer Latin American cinema, and the fetishization of the female tennis body in the post-Kournikova era. This is her first essay for Slutever. /

The final day of the 2013 Wimbledon tournament was supposed to be the best day in Marion Bartoli’s life. She had just defeated the German tennis professional Sabine Lisicki to earn her first Grand Slam title. During this jovial occasion, BBC presenter John Inverdale apparently thought it was necessary to make comments about Bartoli’s looks. Not her athletic skills, her tennis acumen, or her tough mental game. But her body.

“I just wonder if her dad, because he has obviously been the most influential person in her life, did say to her when she was 12, 13, 14 maybe, ‘listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker. You are never going to be somebody like Sharapova, you’re never going to be five feet eleven, you’re never going to be somebody with long legs, so you have to compensate for that.”

It’s almost inarguable that men and women alike were figuratively slapping their foreheads while listening to these remarks. Adding insult, to, well, insult, was the fact that Inverdale did not fully acknowledge the severity of his comments. His excuse? Hay fever. Inverdale did not bring up the excessive judgment female tennis players are subjected to. He did not apologize to Marion Bartoli in light of of the patronizing, gendered nicknames female tennis players receive (“Gorgeous Gussie” for the late, American Gussie Moran, “Darling Carling” for retired Canadian player Carling Bassett-Seguso.). He apologized because of hay fever.

When Anna Kournikova became a phenomenon, it was based on her looks. The press was not shy to admit this, and her inability to win a Women’s Tennis Association title furthers the Kournikovian mythology. Although most gendered nicknames for female tennis players are generally creepy, Kournikova’s “Lolita of Tennis” takes the cake. As she got older, (i.e. no longer a teenager), she posed for many different men’s magazines, from Sports Illustrated to FHM. This is not to blame Kournikova for posing and making a dollar off herself as a brand. The modern understanding of feminism is freedom of choice. The concern here is: what happens in the Post-Kournikova era? Or, what happens when you are a professional tennis athlete who does not look like Anna Kournikova? And what happens when we have this added dimension of instant social media commentary where users are not held accountable for hate speech and threats?

This brings us back to Bartoli. While Inverdale was making all of his insulting comments on the BBC, he was probably also not aware that during the final between Bartoli and Lisicki, Twitter was blowing up with something a lot darker than Inverdale’s awkward, old-man sexism. While an index of all the twitter comments pertaining to Bartoli could probably fill a notebook, I won’t do that. In the interest of not becoming depressed, I’ll only quote a few lines, verbatim. Twitter user “Dane Simpkins” (@two45dolla) tweeted “I’ll be supporting the more than fuckable #lisicki, #Bartoli looks like your stereotypical dyke”. This tweet reflected only a small portion of the homophobia plaguing female athletes. Other tweets, and by other I mean many, asked whether Bartoli had a penis. The rest of the tweets fundamentally show why parents across Middle America don’t want their kids on the internet, like this charming utterance from “London’s Stifler” (@Kwikz): “Bartoli you fat shit. I don’t want an ugly bitch to win”. Even a professional footballer from Australia had something to say about Bartoli, tweeting that he hated her and would “love to smash the wee fat cow.”

After various response articles about the derogatory comments in the international press, you would think that people would maybe stop saying these kinds of things, at least publicly. Sadly, it continues. This past March, when Bartoli tweeted that she was considering a return to tennis and wanted to know what her followers’ thought, the infamously difficult and former world no. 1 Jimmy Connors replied to Bartoli’s tweet. Of course, it’s about her body again, telling her that she should only re-enter the professional tennis scene if she gets fit, healthy, and in shape. What we have to remember is that Connors’ reply was not out of concern. It’s part of a dominant narrative in society that attempts to police the bodies it sees as abnormal, deviant, and out of place. I focus on weight in this article, but we see it with individuals whose gender presentation is not normative, and with people of color. Gender theorist Judith Butler calls these “social sanctions”.

The weird obsession with female tennis athletes’ weight, even when they are performing well, is not exclusive to Bartoli. In 2012, American tennis junior Taylor Townsend displayed skills beyond her 16 years. Her precocity was compared to retired American tennis player Lindsay Davenport, a former world no. 1 who, like Townsend, won both the Australian Open junior singles and doubles titles in 1992. This was also the last time a junior tennis player had done this. Impressive, right? That’s why it came as a surprise to Townsend and her family when her coaches not only cut her funding, but insisted she stay home and not participate in the US Open junior tournament—unless she lost weight. Luckily for Townsend, her mom paid her way, and she got to play.

Depending on your beliefs, these examples may seem trivial. But I’m not here to argue whether athletes should be “fat” or not. The bigger concern is what we are asking female tennis players to look like, and there isn’t a lot of variety. Basically, it feels like female tennis is culturally accepted as a sport because there is an exception of female beauty. This doesn’t sound like democracy, liberty, or whatever values we currently privilege in our cultural consciousness. It’s worth noting that there has been general agreement amongst sociologists that female athletes are not only underrepresented, but when they are represented, they are seen as a joke:

“Visual production techniques, language, terminology and commentary applied to women’s sport are selectively imposed by the media to provide a highly stereotypical feminized view—one that tends to sexualize, commodify, trivialize and devalue, (through marginalization) women’s sporting accomplishments.” – Pamela Creedon, Women, Media, and Sport: Challenging Gender Values

While talking about these findings with others, beach volleyball has been brought up to me as another sport that seemingly shares the same social phenomenon of women’s tennis; an occasion to check out attractive female bodies. By attractive female bodies, we see a trend: thin, white, perfect teeth, heterosexual gender presentation. The heterosexual gender presentation deserves a whole other article, but the small amount of research that exists on it is grim. Prolific sport sociologist Jennifer Hargreaves wrote this about the imposed heterosexuality in female sport:

“The public image of female athletes is defined to a large degree by the media. It appears that in order to gain coverage a woman must fit the accepted female persona. Female athletes have come to realize that they must emphasise their femininity, especially if they wish to gain sponsorship. Women who do not conform to these unwritten rules are often ridiculed and both their gender and their sexual orientation may be questioned.”  – Jennifer Hargreaves, Heroines of Sport: The Politics of Difference and Identity

In the vast catalogue of unsettling tweets discussing Marion Bartoli, a good quarter of them are homophobic and transphobic. Bartoli is presumably straight, but it raises the alarm on how much society still hates queer people. Hargreaves has also written about how female athletes who aren’t heterosexual must often hide their sexuality or face alienation from their peers.

In response to this issue, some argue the “it’s biology” fallacy, meaning that we have evolved to react to particular body types in unsavoury ways. But isn’t reducing human beings to cognitive-evolutionary theories  dangerously reductionist and oversimplifying a complex social issue? Maybe we should stop calling out “feminists” for being annoyed that people are grading female tennis pros for their boobs rather than their brawn (or, at least, how they use their brawn, because we know that viewers hate seeing muscles on women). It seems especially important to think about how female tennis players are essentially being punished for not meeting the current requirements for what a female tennis player should look like. The status quo is exclusionary, and literally making people too depressed to continue playing tennis. So when do we decide that enough is enough?

Talking Art, Selfies and Body Image with Petra Collins

I went in-conversation with Petra Collins for the Girls Rule issue of Dazed. You can now read the full article below.

If you’ve ever been on the internet, you’re probably familiar with the artist Petra Collins. I’ve also written about her on this blog many times, and she and I have since made a couple of short films together, both of which (quite serendipitously) are about murderous girl gangs. We also both made T-shirts with vaginas on them, except hers was bleeding.

For those of you who don’t know: Petra made her name creating beautifully nostalgic images of youth in her hometown of Toronto, Canada. Still just 21, Petra’s career started in her mid teens. She’s the founder and curator of The Ardorous, an online platform for girls to show their artwork, and she’s also a staff photographer at Rookie, Tavi Gevinson’s awesome mag for teenage girls. This year Petra made the move to NYC, and has since curated an all-female art show titled Gynolandscape, become a muse to Ryan McGinley, and has started making music videos for artists like Sky Ferreira and Blood Orange. Through her cinematic lens, Petra has become an expert at using the female body as a tool to both seduce and provoke, and never fails to find the humor in both.

Karley Sciortino: We’ve worked together a bunch of times, but I’m only just realising that I’ve never asked you when or why you started taking photographs..

Petra Collins: Well, I hate saying this because it sounds sort of pretentious, but since I was very little I’ve always made art, in some form or another. It wasn’t a career choice; I was just doing it because I needed to, because it made me feel whole. Then, when I was 15 I took this photo of my younger sister’s three girlfriends sitting on my bed, and one of them was smoking, and when I got the image back it really surprised me – it was really interesting in a way that I didn’t expect, with a strange sadness and beauty to it. After that I decided to keep documenting those girls, and so for the past five years I’ve been taking photos of my younger sister and her friends. That was unconsciously my first photo project, and what started everything. It’s really crazy because now all the girls have graduated and are going to university.

Karley Sciortino: I’ve seen some of those photos. Some that stand out in my mind are of them at prom.

Petra Collins: Yeah, I shot them at prom, at parties that they went to, in their high school, them taking selfies…

Karley Sciortino: The other day I tweeted that a better name for our generation than “Millennials” would be “Generation Selfie.”

Petra Collins: Seriously. I think the selfie is really interesting because there’s so many levels to it. In a way, it’s an image that doesn’t hold that much truth, but rather is a representation of how someone wants people to perceive them. It’s supposedly a personal image, but it’s always taken with a second party in mind. It’s part of how we all curate our lives online, through Facebook or whatever.

Karley Sciortino: Yeah, so in a way the selfie is the purest representation of how we want the world to perceive us. I recently wrote an article about how social media has turned everyone into their own brand, and suggested that the people who don’t un-tag unflattering photos of themselves are actually just bad at doing their own PR. 

Petra Collins: Lol.

Karley Sciortino: I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but when I first saw your work and then found out you were so young I thought, “She must have famous parents.” I didn’t think someone could be so cool while still so young without some assistance. But then when I met you I realized you’d actually just taught yourself to be cool on the internet.

Petra Collins: Ha, it’s true. The school of Tumblr!

Karley Sciortino: Yeah, it’s crazy how much of a game-changer that is – to grow up with a catalogue of everything that was ever cool or influential or relevant since the dawn of time. I just missed that, because I didn’t have internet at home until I was 13, and even then we just had like AOL chat and other similar non-cool-making resources, and then people like you and Tavi come along, and are intimidatingly cool at age 15, and that makes me hate you, honestly.

Petra Collins: Uh… thank you? So, when you started Slutever, did you set out to create a feminist blog?

Karley Sciortino: Honestly, that wasn’t my intention. I was just writing about what interested me, and I ended up writing a lot about sex and sexuality, I suppose just because I’ve always been a very sexual person, but it wasn’t until my blog started getting popular, and other people and press began referring to me as a feminist blogger that I sat back and thought, “Wait, is that what I am?” Don’t tell anyone, but I actually didn’t know that much about feminism at the time!

Petra Collins: No, same with me! I feel like we went down the same path, because I just started taking photos to work through my own person frustrations, but I didn’t really know what I was doing, and it was through being defined as a feminist that I discovered feminism. But that was only in my last year of high school, which isn’t that long ago.

Karley Sciortino: What frustrations were you working out?

Petra Collins: Well, in the beginning my images were very sexual, and at that time I was dealing with my emerging sexuality. I remember thinking that my worth as a person was based on my looks, and basically being a sex toy. That sounds bad but it’s really what I thought, and it felt very confusing, and I guess I was trying to combat feelings of the male gaze through my images. I wanted to create images that represented my own sexuality, not a sexuality that was dictated by someone else–like, “How do I make this mine?” But it’s a long, hard process to figure that out, and I’m still figuring it out.

Karley Sciortino: I recently interviewed Marsha Rowe for Dazed – she was the founder and editor of the iconic second-wave feminist magazine, Spare Rib. She told me, “What strikes me about modern feminism is that it focuses quite narrowly on the body. So much anxiety gets centered on the woman’s body, and it feels somehow detached from what other things are going on in the wider world.” We went on to talk about the obvious connection of girls’ obsessions with their bodies, and the unrealistic, airbrushed images of perfection we are bombarded with in advertising, in magazines, on TV, etc.

Petra Collins Yeah, it’s so fucked up. It’s almost hard to realise that those images aren’t real because we see them so much.

Karley Sciortino: Right, so we hold ourselves up to these unrealistic standards. It’s strange because as a society, we look at these super retouched images in the media and we’re angry, because we know it creates unhealthy aspirations for women, and just makes us feel bad about ourselves. But simultaneously, whenever we see an unretouched paparazzi shot of a celebrity on the beach, we relish in the opportunity to criticize them for having cellulite or whatever. Rather than appreciating it as a realistic depiction of a female body, we print the photo in a tabloid magazine and draw a big red circle around any imperfection, underneath a headline like, “Scarlett Johansson’s cellulite beach nightmare!” or whatever. So as a society we are very hypocritical about what we want. We want to see images that are at once aspirational and relatable, and yet we condemn them for being both.

Petra Collins: Honestly, I don’t think there’s an hour of the day where I don’t think about my body, which is really messed up. I actually find it weird when I meet a girl without body issues. I just think, “Where did you come from?!” And it makes me so sad to see my sister and her friends, who are all so amazing and beautiful, just hating themselves. 


Petra’s censored Instagram shot

Karley Sciortino: As someone who’s curvier, I sometimes feel insecure about my weight. But then at the same time, because I understand that I’m in a position of even a small amount of influence to young girls, I feel it’s important to project a body-positive image in my writing and in my videos, because obviously I think girls of all sizes can look amazing, but I still can’t escape the harsh self-critique. And then I get anxiety that I’m projecting this confident imagine that isn’t entirely sincere, ya know? But anyway, keeping on the subject of body, your Instagram got deleted recently after you posted an image of yourself in a bikini with a visibly unshaved bikini line. Given that there’s millions of photos on Instagram of girls in bikinis, it was obvious that your photo was censored because of the hair. Quite awesomely, everyone from Vogue to the Huffington Post wrote stories about how Insta censored your pubes.

Petra Collins: Right, the issue was that the image of my body didn’t meet society’s standard of “femininity.” It’s an example of the pressure to succumb to society’s image of beauty literally turning into censorship. I actually did this giant research project about female body hair in my first year at university. I was beginning wonder why I felt the need to remove my hair, ritualistically, almost every day, without ever considering why. So as a little social experiment for myself I decided to stop shaving, just to see how uncomfortable I would be with exposing myself in that way. It was partially about training myself not be affected by what other people think. And now, three years later, I still have the hair. And I still get so many stares. It’s so funny how shocking armpit hair on a girl is to people–they spot it and they just like can’t look away! But I love it now, it’s such a cool accessory. I love the combination of armpit hair and a slutty dress.

Karley Sciortino: That’s hot. Maybe I should stop shaving, both to look more edgy and to just avoid getting ingrown hairs. Literally, sometimes I feel like my life is just one giant ingrown hair. So, who are some female artists that you love?

Petra Collins: I love Lauren Greenfield‘s work. She did that photo series Girl Culture, about girls lives and private rituals, and she made that documentary Thin, about a rehab center that treats women with eating disorders. What about you?

Karley Sciortino: I love Camille Paglia – she’s a very controversial feminist who writes largely about art, sex and pop culture. She’s very pro-sex, pro-porn, and she can be pretty harsh, but she usually just says what everyone else is thinking. And of course, I love Joan Didion, who somehow is able to perfectly articulate everything I’ve ever thought and felt and wondered about, and even some things I didn’t even realize I thought or felt until I read her words. So… should we talk about the fact that we both made shirts with vaginas on them? Mine was a photo of my hairy vaj, and yours was a line drawing of masturbating, menstruating woman with pubes, sold at American Apparel, and it sparked some backlash.

Petra Collins: I know. I find it funny that with all the sexually violent, disgustingly derogatory images we see everyday in the media, that a woman’s period is still something people find so shocking. Menstruation is a natural part of growing up and becoming a sexual person, and yet it’s so hidden, so I really wanted to put it on a shirt and bring the power back to vaginas. That’s what I love about your shirt too – it really demands attention, and calls attention to the fact that the vagina is its own sexual organ. It’s not, ya know…just for dicks.

Vogue, and the Powerful Female Nude

Myla Dalbesio being her super sexy self, shot by the wonderful Stacey Mark

People freak out whenever a female celeb gets naked. They tend to freak out even harder if said female doesn’t posses Hollywood’s idea of a “perfect” body. I wrote an article for Vogue where I talk about this in slightly more detail. You can read it HERE! :)