If Looks Could Kill
How the fetishization of Black bodies and the weaponization of European beauty standards are used against Black women in sport.
As we entered the final week of Black History Month 2022, Black women received a very public and painful reminder of the ways in which their bodies have been historically both fetishized and dehumanized. Renowned psychiatrist, Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, a former president of the American Psychiatric Association, and a gatekeeping leader of both psychiatric education and publications, referred to a Black model as both “a beautiful sight” and “a freak of nature” in response to a post about her dark skin.1
Though it may seem complimentary, or perhaps trivial, racial fetishization perpetuates stereotypes. For Black people, its roots date back to colonial times when Europeans invaded African countries, and both eroticized and hypersexualized Black people’s bodies. For example, in the 1800s, a South African woman, Sara “Saartijie” Baartman, was made into an exhibition and tourist attraction in Europe because of the size of her buttocks. This dehumanization of Black people made it easier to justify the enslavement and abuse to which they were subjected,2 much as it allows for the disrespect, disregard, and maltreatment of Black women today.
The weaponization of European beauty standards against Black females, such as this, does not in the least spare Black female athletes. Studies have shown that 24.2% of NCAA Division I female athletes and 30.7% of Division III female athletes were either very dissatisfied or mostly dissatisfied with their overall appearance3; more than 60% of elite athletes reported pressure from coaches concerning body shape4; and since 2001, female athletes have become increasingly sexually objectified in media.
Sociocultural beauty ideals have shifted to emphasize appearing both athletic and thin.5 One explanation is acculturation in minority groups. Westernization negatively impacts body image, weight perception, and body image dissatisfaction, all of which are risk factors for eating disorders.6 In the Amazon documentary Venus and Serena, Oracene Price, mother of the tennis superstars, recalls being deliberate in her daughters wearing braids with beads: “I wanted them to be women of color and be proud of who they are, and not let anyone make them ashamed of it; and that was the main purpose of the beads, ‘cause it shows their heritage and where they come from.”7
In 2018, a cartoonist tweeted his racist caricature of Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka at the US Open.8 Williams was drawn with exaggerated masculinized features, much larger in scale, stomping on a racket in an apparent tantrum with a baby’s pacifier at her feet. Osaka was drawn as delicate, her skin tone faded beyond recognition, with straight blonde hair, erasing all signs of her actual features, not to mention Hattian and Japanese heritage… as if to make her appear a more “sympathetic victim” in this dramatization of events.
In “The Policing and Punishment of Black Girl Magic In Sports,” Latisha Engracia Cardoso Brown, PhD, states, “We live in a world that asks Black femmes, girls, and women to shrink, alter, and bend themselves in order to be given a modicum of support. Athletes such as Michael Phelps are lauded for a body that has been said to give him a ‘competitive edge.’ But Serena’s muscular physique remains an issue in the media’s lens.”9
Sumiko Wilson interviewed Black female athletes about how sports weaponized racist beauty standards against them. Tennis player Sasha Exeter recalled, “I was told I looked manly or overdeveloped and over-muscular, and didn’t feel feminine.” Coaches asked her, “Can you do something with your hair post-match before interview? Because it looks kind of crazy right now.” Exeter admitted that these interactions affected her self-confidence. You cannot out-perform your own self-image, so how much more confident and successful could she have been, were it not for these aggressions?
Such experiences also impact opportunities to build wealth through endorsements and sponsorship. Another of Wilson’s interviewees, 2-time Olympian Crystal Emmanuel, found that she was not getting the attention of sponsors. Her coach’s answer: her hair. In Emmanuel’s experience, “It’s like, if you’re not wearing weave or if your hair is not straight, then there’s something wrong. But that shouldn’t be something I need to change in myself in order for someone to look at me or think I’m worthy of wearing their brand.”10
With the CROWN (“Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”) Act,11 and increasing representation of Black women wearing natural and protective styles in media, this discrimination is starting to change. More tangible effects—or lack thereof—may come with the NCAA Name Image and Likeness (NIL) policy.12 Per NCAA President Mark Emmert, “This is an important day for college athletes since they all are now able to take advantage of name, image, and likeness opportunities.” However, as history and fairytales alike (recall Cinderella) have made painfully obvious, eligibility and ability are different.
In a personal interview with Kimberley Baker Guillemet, author of Black Prep: Life Lessons of a Perpetual Outsider,13 she stated:
“When a young woman of color grows up receiving messages that her natural appearance and features are somehow inferior, that causes irreparable harm that seeps into every facet of her life. The seeds of judgment and condescension implanted by the media, our school systems, and society at large will cause her to self-select out of even attempting opportunities because she will believe that people like her are inherently undeserving and incapable of success.”
Sport provides us examples of where this rings true. In June 2021, Atahabih Germain wrote about professional tennis player and former Junior World Champion Taylor Townsend.14 Townsend was fat-shamed, and she felt the US Tennis Association tried to end her career due to her weight. Despite being the number 1 junior girls’ tennis player in 2012, weeks away from the US Open, Townsend was told she was “not fit to play” and was denied funding to attend the tournament. Townsend’s mother financed her trip. Townsend won the Junior doubles title and advanced to quarter finals in the singles division. Townsend reflected, “there’s also hundreds (thousands?!) of stories you’ll probably never even hear about, of Black girls who just didn’t get a shot… whether that’s because of money… or racism… or lack of support… or gatekeeping bullsh–t… or because the system just kind of failed them, the way it fails so many Black women, all the f–king time.”
Nia Dennis has amazed with her gymnastics routines tributing Black culture. Dennis acknowledged15:
“The gymnastics community as a whole needs to nurture young Black gymnasts because growing up, I was always told that I didn’t have the look. I was powerful, I had more muscles, my muscles were more defined… I was called ‘fat’ a lot growing up because of my muscles, because I didn’t have the classic look, or whatever it is that the gymnastics community is so used to seeing… For a long time, I wanted my skin color to be different. For a long time, I wanted my hair to fall down, and I didn’t want it to stick up straight… For a long time, I wished the chalk didn’t show up on my legs.”
These stories illustrate how sports ideals of certain beauty standards are used against Black women. Even if covertly relayed, denigrating messages are not missed. Instead, aggressions land squarely on target, with the effects felt deeply in Black girls and women as they pursue their passions in sport and life. A one-size-fits all approach is bound to leave some ostracized. Some say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” yet research shows us that in society, there is substantial agreement as to what constitutes human beauty. A study of People Magazine’s World’s Most Beautiful (WMB) list found trends were becoming more inclusive over time. Yet, the most common features of those voted “most beautiful” were females aged 25-34, with white/fair skin, brown hair, and brown eyes.16
Whether from disheartening experiences of Black women in sports or from research data, one wonders: How many times has a disregard for Black girls and women athletes led to an inability to see themselves for all they bring to the table? How many times have these attitudes made their humanity, their womanhood, their femininity, and their talents invisible to the world? Who does the standard serve?
Dr Charles Malveaux is a sports psychiatrist in Los Angeles, California, and the CEO of WCM Sports Psych. She is an advocate and educator on the intersection of mental health, sports, and racial and social justice. Dr Charles Malveaux lends her expertise as a psychiatric consultant to multiple national sport-related agencies, professional sports teams, and organizations. She is also the Western Regional Trustee (Region IV) on the Board of the Black Psychiatrists of America (BPA).
1. Ault A. Former APA president suspended by Columbia for ‘racist’ tweet. Medscape. February 23, 2022. Accessed February 25, 2022.
2. Asare JG. What is fetishization and how does it contribute to racism? Forbes. February 7, 2021. Accessed November 15, 2021.
3. Kato K, Jevas S, Culpepper D. Body image disturbances in NCAA Division I and III female athletes. The Sport Journal. September 30, 2011.
4. Kong P, Harris LM. The sporting body: body image and eating disorder symptomatology among female athletes from leanness focused and nonleanness focused sports. J Psychol. 2015;149(1-2):141-160.
5. Varnes JR, Stellefson ML, Janelle CM, et al. A systematic review of studies comparing body image concerns among female college athletes and non-athletes, 1997-2012. Body Image. 2013;10(4):421-432.
6. Gorrell S, Trainor C, Le Grange D. The impact of urbanization on risk for eating disorders. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2019;32(3):242-247.
7. Baird M, Major M. Venus and Serena [Digital]. Magnolia Pictures; 2013.
8. Whaley N. This cartoon of Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka is being called out for presenting racist tropes. MIC. September 10, 2018. Accessed November 15, 2022.
9. Brown LEC. The policing and punishment of Black girl magic in sports. First and Pen. June 2, 2021. Accessed November 15, 2021.
10. Wilson S. “It’s like I can’t be myself.” how sports weaponize racist beauty standards against Black women. Rogers Digital Media. Accessed November 15, 2021.
11. Creating a respectful and open world for natural hair. Dove Crown Coalition. 2019. Accessed November 15, 2021.
12. Hosick MB. NCAA adopts interim name, image and likeness policy. NCAA. News release. June 30, 2021. Accessed November 15, 2021.
13. Guillemet KB. Black Prep: Life Lessons of a Perpetual Outsider. Ransom & Baker Publishing House; 2021.
14. Germain A. ‘I was fat, and I was Black, so they took away my dream’: Taylor Townsend claims U.S. Tennis Association nearly ended her career because of her weight. Atlanta Black Star. June 9, 2021. Accessed November 15, 2021.
15. Justich K. UCLA gymnast Nia Dennis opens up about being a young Black athlete: ‘I was always told that I didn’t have the look.’ Yahoo! February 24, 2021. Accessed November 15, 2021.
16. Maymone MBC, Neamah HH, Secemsky EA, et al. The most beautiful people: evolving standards of beauty. JAMA Dermatol. 2017;153(12):1327-1329.