Bartoli: Victorious, yet defeated in a sexist world

Last Updated: Thu, Jul 11, 2013 13:04 hrs

I don't follow tennis any longer. But I do follow the news. 

Marion Bartoli's victory at Wimbledon was marred (not for her I'm sure) by a precious statement made by Radio 5 Live presenter John Inverdale, 'Do you think Bartoli's dad told her when she was little, 'You're never going to be a looker, you'll never be a [Maria] Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight'?' Snort. 

Yes, that's what her father was thinking when he was busy coaching a future Wimbledon champion. I must admit there is a temptation to laugh him off, as just the kind of a white male of a certain age caricatured in Pitch Perfect (Gail: I think we have just seen a cappella history being made, John. John: And from an all-female group, Gail, I could never have called this one. Gail: Never. Well you are a misogynist at heart, so there's no way you would have bet on these girls to win). Complaints were made and he did apologize the next day.

What is hard to laugh off is the flood of remarks made about Bartoli's appearance on social media sites. This blog collated a set of tweets on Bartoli and it is stomach-churning stuff. Where does all this vitriol come from? Mind you it's men AND women finding the appearance of a female in the public eye, succeeding in a profession that has nothing to do with her looks, so objectionable. 

The only reason I can think about this reaction is that there is an entire population of people who believe that a 'famous' woman needs to be attractive in a certain kind of way. Evidently we have been fed with a diet of sleek, tall, (blonde) goddesses for so long now, that a woman who doesn't fulfill those norms must have a penis, is fat, ugly, a pig and a slut. Also she is a 'dyke'. Misogyny AND homophobia. 

Unfortunately, Bartoli is not the first tennis player to have been in this position. Her countrywoman Amelie Mauresmo (who was out as a lesbian) was called 'half a man' by Martina Hingis while Lindsay Davenport, after being defeated by her, said playing her was like 'playing a guy'. I suppose it is an improvement that the snark isn't coming from other tennis players now.

To understand why Bartoli's appearance is such an, for want of a better word, aberration for some people, we need to look at women depicted in the media – television, fashion, and cinema for starters. 

An article by a former Vogue editor in the Guardian recently discusses how fashion designers have been using thinner and thinner models over the years. 'If you look back at the heady days of the supermodels in the late 80s and early 90s, beauties such as Cindy Crawford, Eva Herzigova and Claudia Schiffer look positively curvaceous compared to the sylphs of today,' she says.

Today's fashion models tend to be little more than children, many of whom struggle with eating disorders to be able to fit the clothes. The fashion industry's sample size tyranny extends to magazines – Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey both gorgeous and funny women have detailed the experience of being forced to shove their non-model bodies into sample size clothes in their memoirs.

In India, this shrinking and perhaps even homogenising of famous women can be seen in Bollywood heroines and the public's response to them. I looked at pictures of Zeenat Aman, Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai and Deepika Padukone from films of the 80s, 90s, 2000, and 2010s respectively. Aman was svelte for her day but compared to Padukone and the heroines of today, she would be considered 'fat'. Ditto for Dixit and Rai of 2000. The few actors bucking the trend like Sonakshi Sinha and Vidya Balan have their appearances regularly critiqued by film reviewers, gossip columnists and audience members alike. 

Sonakshi is only fat if we are convinced Deepika's body has to be the norm. And just like that through our dominant popular culture we have reduced the various shapes and sizes of a woman's body into just one acceptable ideal against which every other variant is bound to fail. 

The west has its ideal of blond, tall beauties – Maria Sharapova just happens to fit that mould. Anything but that ideal is subject to body snarking in as many forms of media there is (have you ever read a 'best and worst beach bodies' feature?) There is some push back, yes but obviously not enough for a woman who doesn't match the ideal to be able to win a major athletic event to win praise for her achievement instead of disgust for daring to look like a human being. 

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