When Venus and Serena appeared on “The New York Times” magazine cover this past weekend for a mostly flattering story, many people, even their detractors, enjoyed an unusually intimate look at the tennis superstars. But for a few others, the usual sniping came through, particularly about Serena and some of her more controversial moments, including infamously telling a lineswoman after what she thought was a bad call that she would ram a tennis ball down her throat. When Serena wore a tight red dress to “The David Letterman Show” last week, most people applauded her sexy look but other web posters sneered at her “masculine” arms and her overall “tranny” appearance. Despite her numerous on-court accomplishments, jabs about her femininity have followed Serena her entire career.

Laila Ali had similar issues when she was boxing. She was once accused of being gay and in a relationship with Queen Latifah, who’s fielded gay rumors for years. The rumors were so widespread in 2005 that Ali, then in the midst of a divorce from her first husband, issued a statement that said “Yes, I am in the process of getting a divorce, but I am not dating, nor will I ever be dating a woman, because I am not gay.” After a stint on “Dancing With The Stars” and after having two children with her second husband, rumors about her sexuality have largely subsided. But that begs the question – why are strong women, very often athletic ones, often viewed as “masculine” or “gay?”

Common sense would tell you that women in sports would be more muscular than the average non-athlete. It would also tell you that certain sports demand more muscle than others. The women who play beach volleyball aren’t just viewed as more “feminine” because they play in bathing suits. Their sport requires them to have lean muscle. Long distance runners are thin because their sport burns so many calories. Female swimmers aren’t generally ripped, but they do often have thick shoulders and buff arms from the strength required to cut through the water. Serena is more muscular than her sister, which gives her more power on the court – thus the ability to serve aces almost as fast as the men do. What’s most interesting about perceptions of Serena is that off the court, she’s nearly always dressed in high heels and tight dresses with big hair, makeup and sometimes even nails. Yet that, and that fact that Serena is much more buxom that the average female athlete has done little to stop the derogatory comments about her appearance.

She’s now retired from boxing and a mother, but Ali is still a strong woman. She completed a triathlon after the birth of her second child and now she’s on the NBC reality series “Stars and Stripes,” a military competition show that pits celebs like Olympian Picabo Street, singer/personality Nick Lachey and political husband Todd Palin against each other in military maneuvers. As the current president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, Ali encourages young women to go into sports and supports the ones that have.

“When I saw women’s boxing on the TV for the first time, it was more than I gotta get active or lose weight. I was truly inspired,” Ali told “Then the seed was planted and I became a fighter so the people who are our next Serena, our next Gabby [Douglas] they were watching [the Olympics] and they’re gonna be doing something with that and that’s what we need to see. I’m the President of the Women’s Sports Foundation and our whole goal is to keep young girls strong and active through sports and physical education and so it’s great for them to see these images of young women.”

Every female athlete isn’t going to be petite and girly like Gabby Douglas, nor should she have to be. There are female athletes who like to dress up off the court, track, field or out of the pool just because they want to show they can be athletes and be fly, too, or because they spend so much time in sweats and sneakers that they welcome the chance to dress up. Others are casual all the time. But we need to consider that female athletes, like everyone else, can choose to portray themselves however they please.

Focusing on their amazing accomplishments instead of where they stand on some makeshift femininity scale is what the focus should be. Sports are an amazing way to encourage women to develop healthy self-esteem and to see their bodies as powerful for what they can accomplish, not just something to invite male attention. We want our girls and women to be strong because it takes strength to be a woman. Motherhood, childrearing and having the options to do neither, as well as life itself, all present their share of challenges. If we give our girls the chance to define womanhood for themselves, we’ll all be better off. Strong women are powerful women and regardless of whether they choose to wield that power in high heels or not, they still deserve our respect.


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