Fame and Body Politics: The Question of Coherent Autonomy for Black Women in Professional Sports

In an article by Hannah Ryan for CNN, Ryan details the immense amount of scrutiny that Black women undergo in the professional sports field when their actions skew from the established perception that the public has made for them within their field. For athletes like Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, and Caster Semenya, embracing their pain, sensitivity, and struggle in both competition and in their personal lives has posed significant challenges to their success in their respective fields. All of these women confront the challenge of being portrayed with a level of invincibility, strength, and perfection in their careers while at the same time understanding that their successes can be limited without their adherence to the expectations of the governing systems which guide their sports.

In most cases, these systems are dominated by white men. Misogyny pervades almost every element of their professional experience, the clothes they wear, the feminine or masculine traits they are allowed to express or claim, the image they must display to watching audiences, and the expectation of a demonstrated “respect” they must have for their sport and country. Each of these elements plays an essential role in shaping their professional experiences and turning their successes into a quantifiable and socially acceptable good.

Reading this article brought forth many questions for me in considering what it truly means to have autonomy in positions of public influence such as professional sports. Specifically, it made me intent on considering the consequences and challenges of being a minority and Black woman in male-led, white-dominated fields and how that impacts one’s capacity to achieve autonomy and a fully realized self in the face of public criticism. The question of how to claim autonomy and advocate against the oppression that these women experience is uniquely challenging given the complicated relationship the public has to athletes and to athletics as a culture.

Osaka first drew criticism following her competition in the French Open when she refused to partake in press interviews, detailing that participating in them had a negative impact on her mental health. Biles’ 2021 Summer Olympics performance brought forth hoards of backlash nationwide after she stepped away from the competition to address her mental health and physical well-being. Williams for years has combated hatred and vitriol for her physical appearance, claims that her physique is not feminine enough, and implications that she has used performance-enhancing drugs to perform at a high level. Semenya has faced discrimination throughout her career due to a physical condition that she cannot change: higher levels of testosterone in her body compared to her other female competitors. Each of these women share the common experience of being praised for their talent until it threatens the success of their white counterparts or casts a light on the ways they are overworked, manipulated, cast aside, or under-appreciated in sports which, for most of history, have served as a form of entertainment for men.

The themes present in the lives of these women parallel the debate laid out in Serene Khader’s chapter of Philosophy for Girls on autonomy. In a wide variety of social and professional settings, society has crafted the image of what it means to be a woman in sports in a manner that prioritizes physical appearance, politeness, charisma, and competitive success. The oppressive and exclusionary structure that the governing bodies of these organizations place on certain groups on the basis of gender, race, and sexuality all are critical to consider in our questioning of autonomy and self-expression in professional sports. Just as the chapter highlights “Williamson Starr” for her ability to code-switch and alter her personality to better suit her upper class, white high school experience, Black female athletes throughout history have been encouraged to exist within a mold that prohibits them from exposing their truest, most authentic self.

An example beyond the ones previously noted is the rejection of Black hair in professional swimming. In 2021 the Olympic committee determined that a swim cap designed to accommodate Black women’s natural hair would no longer be allowed in competition. Hierarchical demands that determine which choices and actions take the most authority in our pursuit of advancement emerge from instances, mental and physical, that mimic the ones faced by female athletes. When women seek to exceed or overcome the barriers put in place to make their obtaining of those desires possible, the goal line moves and understanding shifts to ensure that they still fail to fit the mold. This is most certainly reflected in the realm of sports. Each of the women mentioned in this article have risen to the highest levels of achievement within their respective fields, and at the smallest adjustment or attempt to evade the unreasonable, they are denied full autonomy and will to shape their identities without restriction.

General Questions in Autonomy, Race, and Consciousness Raising

● Philosophers use the concept of personal autonomy to describe the ability to lead lives that are our own, lives that reflect reasons and values that genuinely belong to us. In what cases does public perception limit or deny one’s capacity to fully exercise personal autonomy?

● Many philosophers claim that autonomous values and motivations are characterized by not being “socially shaped.” Is seeking out experiences and goals that parallel the lives of other people inhibiting to our pursuit of true autonomy?

● In the chapter on autonomy and consciousness raising groups in Philosophy for Girls, it is acknowledged that it is possible for the people around us to aid us in developing genuine values, understandings, motivations, and behaviors which align us more effectively to our most authentic selves. In what ways do you find this to be true or false in your experience?

● In the case of pursuing fame or higher social stature, if an individual’s views and actions are internally consistent with their personal beliefs but externally masked, is that identity wholly theirs to claim? If the identities we create and present to the public are not our truest, most authentic selves, at what point should we consider “our masks” as harmful misrepresentations of our identities?

● How does one claim their identity when raised in the face of socially formed notions of who we are intended to be?

● Throughout history, confining social structures have sought to reap women of ownership over their bodies, oftentimes shaping their discomfort and dissatisfaction into political weapons. What impact has the politicization of feminine expression, sexuality, and movement been dictated by grasps for political gain?

● Racial minorities often face a unique set of discriminatory circumstances in the realm of professional athletics, especially when they compete at the highest levels of their field. Why is it that these individuals often stand unprotected against attacks against their character due their strong performance or lack thereof in professional sports?