PostHeaderIcon Taylor Townsend & The Volatile Issues Of Weight, Body Image, Race And Power

By now, I’m sure that most of you have heard about the “Taylor Townsend Affair“.  I mentioned this embarrassing incident briefly in my piece “Ten (+10) Final Thoughts On Serena, Andy, And A Satisfying End To The Grand Slam Season“, but have since realized that it warrants a much more thorough examination. For those who don’t know, the 16 year-old Townsend is the world’s top-ranked junior, with 2012 titles at the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. Clearly, this is not an issue of her talent or abilities. So then what exactly is the USTA’s issue with Taylor?

Like many teens, Taylor could be perceived to have a fitness deficit if your criterion for “fitness” is one based on weight and physical appearance. In tennis terms, she’s built like Serena Williams and Nadia Petrova, players who tend to be thicker than the likes of Maria Sharapova or Ana Ivanovic. This is the crux of the problem for the USTA Player Development team, who decided it was in Taylor’s best interest to sit out the year’s final junior Slam so that she could focus on her “fitness” even though she was going in as both the world No. 1 and the top seed.

“Our concern is her long-term health, number one, and her long-term development as a player,” said Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of the USTA’s player development program. “We have one goal in mind: For her to be playing in [Arthur Ashe Stadium] in the main draw and competing for major titles when it’s time. That’s how we make every decision, based on that.”

Under the guise of “we only have the best intentions for Taylor’s well-being”, the USTA declined to pay for her travel expenses to the Open, leaving Taylor’s mother to cover all costs for her daughter’s participation. They later came out with various statements on this matter, but only after the story of Taylor’s treatment started snowballing on them in terms of bad press. One statement cited reports of an iron deficiency that seemed to be affecting her energy and performance, bolstering their claim of looking out for her health. The other statement reported that the USTA would reimburse the family for travel costs.

Many tennis writers have taken the USTA (namely Patrick McEnroe) to task over their focus on the weight and appearance of a 16 year-old. While it’s true that many teens have issues with obesity and healthy eating habits, very few teens are world No. 1 in a sport like Taylor. If there are concerns with Taylor’s eating habits and how that might be affecting her health and on-court performance, then those can be addressed in a manner that’s much more supportive than how things have transpired so far. After all, most elite athletes need help in optimizing the variables that might ultimately lead to their success, and most would welcome the help. But this was not the USTA’s intent, nor their offer.

Before I start ripping on the USTA for the myriad of ways in which this situation was botched, I’d like to provide my perspective on the issues surrounding fitness in elite-level physical activities, and can do so given my past career as a professional dancer. Few careers combine the issues of fitness and aesthetics so closely as this highly subjective performing art. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I can provide some insight into some of the issues that the USTA might be attempting to address.

Athletic endeavors that are attempted at an elite level place undue stress on bodies that were never designed to perform in that manner, be it dance, tennis, gymnastics or weightlifting; causing damage to the body’s bones, joints, and connective tissue. In physics terms, stress on the body is a matter of pounds per square inch. Dancers (and all athletes) need to figure out how to facilitate their activities while minimizing the impact of that stress. This doesn’t mean that the best way to achieve maximum performance with minimal stress is by being underweight or skinny, because it’s not and can cause diminished levels of performance.

I know this first-hand from my experience as a high school wrestler. Wrestlers “drop weight” at the start of a season in order to find the optimal weight class where their weight-to-strength ratio is maximized. If you drop too much weight, you become weak and ineffective. If you don’t drop any you might not be able to compete against opponents who have a better weight -to- strength ratio than you. I’ve experienced both and can vouch that my optimal weight for performance had a very real value.

The same is true of my experience in dance, where decreased weight can help in terms of partnering and achieving aesthetically optimal lines, but can also cause problems with energy and memory that lead to detrimental effects on practice and performance. The more subjective aspects of dance are associated with what supposedly looks best on stage. For most, this means “thin”. Famed choreographer Bill T. Jones played with this prejudice by hiring a very large male dancer who some might refer to as obese, even choreographing dances to feature his unique skills. Dancers like this are by no means common, but it also illustrates the inherent problems of judging a subjective book by its cover.

Though he was a fine performer, I’ve often wondered how his joints have fared over the ensuing years. My own knee surgery was the culmination of years of wear and tear on the joint because of my weight, wear that doesn’t differentiate between muscle and fat. This leads me back to Taylor’s weight. In order to have the longest career possible, it’s in her best interests to find the optimal weight where she feels fit and strong while minimizing the detrimental effects of excess weight. Some might be inclined to say, “Her weight is fine.” But these people won’t be around when Taylor’s in her thirties, battling joint problems or maybe even issues with hypertension and diabetes.

Having said all of that, the ham-handed attempts of the USTA to address any of these concerns is outrageous. If they had explained any of this to Taylor and her mom as the reasoning behind their concerns, that would have been okay and maybe even welcome. That’s not what happened though. She was simply told that she needed to slim down, focus on her fitness, and wouldn’t be allowed to compete until doing so to their satisfaction. Their focus was solely on her “health and fitness” i.e. her weight and appearance. In a sport where young girls are routinely made to feel inadequate for all sorts of reasons, this is inexcusable on the part of Patrick McEnroe and his team.

There are many definitions of what constitutes fitness for a tennis player. As Lindsay Davenport said in her response to this controversy, “You have to be fit, but you don’t have to look ripped”. There are many fine players in both the ATP and WTA who’ve had great careers, but are by no means the most ripped specimens on tour. Current players that come to mind are David Nalbandian, Xavier Malisse, Nadia Petrova, even Petra Kvitova and John Isner from a few years ago. The best example, however, is Serena Williams.

Serena has fifteen majors to her credit, as well as Olympic gold in singles. She’s also one of the curviest women on tour, proudly referring to herself as “Bootylicious”.  Her weight (and fitness) has waxed and waned greatly over the years, yet hasn’t stopped her from becoming the greatest player of her generation. At the 2007 Australian Open, Serena was in the worst shape of her career after enduring injury and grieving the murder of her older sister, Yetunde. Newspapers focused on the size of her butt and thighs as she played her way into better shape with each round. By the final, she was in full form (no pun intended), thrashing Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-2. I’m not saying that Taylor will have the same success as Serena, because none of us can predict the future. But judging a player’s abilities by their appearance, as many have done with Serena, might be ill-advised.

The comparison to Serena’s body type struggles reminds me of a similar issue within the dance world. Arthur Mitchell created the Dance Theater of Harlem because there were very few opportunities for blacks in the highly subjective and very white world of classical ballet. In those days, a black dancer with the same abilities as a white dancer wouldn’t get hired by the major companies because black dancers’ bodies were deemed to be not as aesthetically-pleasing as white dancers. It’s the same way that Serena’s body and game has often been judged to be not as aesthetically pleasing as the white players she’s consistently beaten over the years. Taylor is now being judged by those same errant standards.

Aside from the highly volatile issues of fitness and appearance combined with the intersection of race and body types, the most troubling aspect of this embarrassing episode is the heavy-handed approach by Patrick McEnroe. As with Donald Young in years past, Patrick has again made himself the ultimate arbiter to decide what’s best for developing a young player’s growth. He disapproved of Donald’s parents as his primary coaches, and also didn’t approve of what he felt was Donald’s lax training regimen. What followed was a systematic trashing of Donald in various forms with books such as Hardcourt Confidential, newspaper interviews, Davis Cup coaching non-selections, and negative match commentary on TV.

Because Patrick’s the top dog, I’m not even sure that “bully pulpit” is a strong enough term to describe the degree to which he was able to completely denigrate Donald. And even though Donald helped Patrick’s cause immensely with highly inappropriate behavior and tweets, his frustrations with the USTA system under Patrick had more than a slight whiff of legitimacy. It would be sad to see the same path laid out for Taylor.

I’m sure that Patrick believes that he has the best intentions for these players. But he’s way too close to the subject matter. He doesn’t seem to realize that he’s laying his own negative biases on the players he’s supposed to nurture. In effect, he’s playing God with their careers, which would be okay if he behaved as a benevolent God. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, since both of these episodes appear to be based in control. Either they play ball his way or they don’t play ball.

This isn’t to suggest that Patrick has sinister motives, because I don’t believe he does. But maybe he has too much power without sufficient voices to challenge his sometimes questionable judgment towards the players under his development. Maybe if had those voices, this episode wouldn’t have been such a total embarrassment to the folks at the USTA. Taylor Townsend deserves better, and should be afforded every opportunity to improve her game and conditioning as is befitting of a world No. 1.

I’ll conclude with comments from Martina Navratilova, Lindsay Davenport, and Serena Williams. Between them, these three Grand Slam champions have won 36 Slam singles titles and two Olympic medals in singles. They’re also uniquely qualified to discuss this controversy since all have dealt with the same weight and fitness issues as Taylor.

Martina: “It is absolutely insane what they did, so irresponsible. If anything, play more. Don’t go into the gym. Just watch [what you eat], but in a positive and constructive and long-term way. But to throw this on her at 16? I’m trying to be nice here, but they totally blew it on this one.”

Lindsay: “Bringing out their best isn’t making them feel bad about themselves and having a horrible self-image. You get it out of them by getting them happy, by getting them excited to play, not by tearing them down.”

Serena Williams: “She’s so sweet and she works so hard… For a female, particularly, in the United States, in particular, and African-American, to have to deal with that is unnecessary… Women athletes come in all different sizes and shapes and colors and everything. I think you can see that more than anywhere on the tennis tour.”

5 Responses to “Taylor Townsend & The Volatile Issues Of Weight, Body Image, Race And Power”

  • Matt Henry says:

    Great 360 perspective on this issue. Well done, K!

  • Jonathan says:

    K., a very well written and thought provoking article.
    I recall you briefly mentioning it while we warmed up one day.
    Now, if only we could get your tennis game as concise and flowing!
    Sadly, given his stature within the game, his own experiences as a Black American playing in a predominantly White sport, and his intimate involvement with the Brothers McEnroe, it is truly a shame that the Great Arthur Ashe is no longer with us to weigh in on, and perhaps provide better leadership with, this issue.

  • Deborah says:

    Another classy and first-class piece of writing.

    My own take on watching this amazing young woman play was fear for her systemic health. HEALTH.

    Carrying a percentage body fat well into the medical category of morbid obesity when participating in an intensely physical activity carries some terrifying possibilities, not least of which is stroke.

    Morbid obesity demands a thorough physical, which includes a review of what is being eaten–sugars and fat–and how it has affected the physiology of the individual.

    Hydration is always well coached for tennis players but those who are morbidly obese will lose more water–and thus salt–in the form of sweat and salt deficiency which can lead quickly to disorientation.

    Finally, we come to the Big D: diabetes, which loops back to family genetics but is greatly abetted by what is being eaten and whether a nutrition profile is in place. A blood sugar ‘incident’ on court will and can drop a player in seconds and unless there is a physician on court who is knowledgeable about blood sugar and D1/D2 management, the player can move into a coma within 60 seconds.

    For this viewer, my first response to watching Taylor was not admiration but overwhelming concern that someone responsible for this minor’s well-being has allowed her to pursue such intense activity into adulthood without taking over management of her health. Its what the USTA clearly hoped would happen in an interim period of a year (could they have handled in a more clumsy way? I think not, oy!).

    But I understand the impetus behind their declaration. I watch Taylor with both admiration and trepidation every time I get to watch her in a match. I want the best for her, and long, pleasing career. As her health appears just now, I believe the ‘long’ aspect is in jeopardy.

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