Thin and fit don’t inherently go hand in hand, but athletic prowess was little comfort to tennis star Serena Williams when she was growing up.
The winner of 20 Grand Slam titles, Williams often compared herself to her older sister. “Venus was like a model. I was thicker,” Williams said in an interview with the Huffington Post this week.
Both sisters have been playing professionally since childhood. But Williams always felt different on the court because of her size, and scoring big couldn’t squash feelings of insecurity. “Most women athletes are pretty thin,” said Williams. “I didn’t really know how to deal with it.”
Williams’ conflating thinness and athleticism is a common battle many women face. Being “in shape,” healthy, or fit often doesn’t translate to wearing a size 2, a visible space between the thighs, or the ability to wrap your arm around your back to reach your belly button.
Body mass index, a common tool used by doctors and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helps determine whether a person is in the correct weight range based on height and weight alone, without considering muscle mass. And since muscle weighs more than, many athletes’ BMI puts them past the “healthy” range.
Whatever number William hits on the scale, doctors are unlikely to think that the athlete is fat. As the usefulness of BMI has come under scrutiny—the CDC recommends athletes talk to their doctors.
So, Why Should You Care? Female collegiate athletes have a higher risk of developing eating disorders than peers who do not participate in sports, according to a 2015 study. Past studies have found that up to 75 percent of female college-level athletes suffer from body dissatisfaction and that regardless of their body fat percentage, wanted to lose weight if they had higher BMIs.
At 33 years old, Williams has accepted herself as she is. “I had to come to terms… with loving myself,” said Williams. “I had to find different role models.”
She credits her positive outlook with her recovery from a 2010 injury, which put her out of commission. As she recovered, Williams began to more deeply appreciate her body’s capabilities beyond the way it looks.
As for how she feels about her body now, she’s pretty happy: “I’m loving it!”