16-year-old Taylor Townsend is currently the number one junior tennis player in the world, bringing hope to the increasingly troubled state of American tennis. Considered a prodigy, Townsend is one of 25 junior players currently being trained at the brand-new full-time academy in Boca Raton, FL, which is funded by the United States Tennis Association (USTA).
Logically, this would seem to make her a major asset for the sport. However, Townsend has been benched by the USTA until further notice. The reason? Evidently, Townsend is just too darn fat.
Thursday, she won two matches at the U.S. Open's junior tournament, the last a dominating two-set victory over Mexico's Marcela Zacarias in which she pumped her fist after winners and jogged to her chair for every changeover.
But unbeknownst to everyone outside her inner circle, the USTA wasn't happy to see Townsend in New York. Her coaches declined to pay her travel expenses to attend the Open and told her this summer that they wouldn't finance any tournament appearances until she makes sufficient progress in one area: slimming down and getting into better shape.
Townsend’s mother wound up funding her trip to the U.S. Open (UPDATE: the USTA has since offered to reimburse her), as the best hopes the presently agent-less Townsend has of landing sponsorships to help support her training are if she is seen winning in high-profile events. Had the USTA not asked Townsend to withdraw from an earlier qualifying event, she might have had the opportunity to be entered into the main draw at the U.S. Open in a wild-card slot, which would have improved her chances dramatically.
Instead, Townsend was sent back to Boca Raton and “put on double fitness duty and allowed to play just enough tennis to maintain her timing,” not because she could not play and win, but apparently because she didn’t fit our increasingly narrow cultural definition of what an athlete (or even a person just generally “healthy”) looks like.
Two former tennis champions, Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova, have already spoken out in opposition to the USTA decision to bench Townsend until she drops some pounds (Navratilova specifically says she is “livid” about it) and certainly this issue would seem to indicate a myopic tendency on the part of the USTA to ensure its players have the right “look” as much as they have the necessary skills.
But Townsend isn’t alone in being singled out for her size; Serena Williams, arguably one of the greatest tennis players in recent memory, has often faced similar criticism for not fitting the expected willowy physique of a champion athlete, leading some to suggest that there may be a racial component to these standards (certainly, racism in tennis is not a new issue, as both Williams sisters have been outspoken on some truly horrifying comments at some of the greatest tournaments in the world).
Of course, to a logical mind it seems preposterous to bench a proven and winning player over vague concerns that her "fitness" may be negatively affecting her performance. The danger in limiting what an athlete looks like is not exclusive to the professionals, however. By insisting that an athlete must necessarily have a certain visually defined fitness, we are essentially telling anyone with a body type that does not naturally incline toward that shape that they cannot be successful players unless they can somehow wedge themselves into that slot, and this is enormously discouraging especially to kids who are exploring sports for the first time.
I can speak from personal experience. Tennis was one of my favorite sports as a kid, to the extent that I even spent a couple of my tweener summers at tennis camp. In spite of enjoying the sport and even earning a couple trophies at it, I mostly remember my fellow campers instructing me that I would never be very good at it unless I lost weight.
In kids, these suggestions can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies -- if you tell a fat kid who likes sports that fat kids are terrible at sports often enough, odds are good that in the absence of a strong support system of coaches and others invested in their success, eventually that kid is going to start to believe it, and feel discouraged with playing at all. In my case, by the eighth grade, I had quit sports entirely, not because I decided I no longer enjoyed playing them, but because I had come to accept that no matter how good I was, I would never be good enough for people to not make an issue of my size.
By making Taylor Townsend a cautionary tale, the USTA -- arguably an organization that is supposed to be dedicated to the promotion of tennis, and not making it an exclusive club -- is reinforcing the idea that how an athlete looks is more important than how she performs, and whether she is passionate about her sport. This line of thinking is damaging to Townsend personally, to tennis as a sport, and to our culture as a whole. As Sports Illustrated has put it:
[Townsend] is not the future of American tennis, she is not a policy and she is not an example. She’s just a kid playing a sport she loves and she’s pretty darn good at it. Her body is still developing, her self-esteem still ebbing and flowing, and the last thing she needs, not as a tennis prodigy but as an adolescent, is her own tennis federation telling her she’s physically deficient.
It took me a long time to revive my love of competitive sports, even just for fun, and truth be told, when I do occasionally participate these days, I still have many moments in which self-consciousness overwhelms me and I fall back into thinking that I am neither entitled nor allowed to enjoy playing. And it pisses me off that anyone thought it acceptable to tell a child that sports weren’t a thing she could do unless she could remedy her “unathletic” growing body first, and apparently to do so by some means that didn’t involve fun, engaging, social activities that sports are supposed to be.
For all our cultural handwringing over children’s health in the United States, it sure seems to defy logic that we would spend time actively discouraging children of any size or ability from enjoying sports, which have enormous benefits to kids’ overall well-being and self-esteem regardless of their natural expertise as players. But that is, in essence, what this decision does. Neither health nor fitness can be visually diagnosed, and by pretending they can be we are limiting both in growing kids who might benefit in a multitude of ways by participation in sports, whether they are champions on a world stage or friendly schoolyard competitors. In short, this is a game where nobody wins.