Serena Williams is the greatest example of muscle power in women’s sport – and she is proud of it. Her attempt to land a historic Serena Slam at the US Open this week demonstrates the value of that hard-won strength. British Olympic badminton silver medallist Gail Emms also prided herself on her power. Then came retirement. Followed by children. Until now… In this highly personal column she reveals: ‘I want my body back’
Growing up, the words ‘chunky’, ‘sturdy’ and ‘tomboy’ were often thrown my way. I wasn’t deemed dainty or delicate enough for dance classes and I was always the person at the bottom of the gymnastics lift. I was born strong and I used to look at all the girls’ petite, long-legged figures in envy. I was built more like a brick.
At 38 years old, I am still struggling to come to terms with my body. I have never been slim in my life. I can make skinny jeans look like running leggings and I could donate calf muscle to most people in a room and still have plenty left over. When I was competing, I had a butt that wouldn’t look out of place in the 100-metres line-up. And I could squat 130 kilograms, which was twice my body weight. But I was happy. I was so fast I used to beat most of the male badminton players in sprints. And I could do a standing jump that would impress high-jumpers. In a sporting environment, I was in my element as muscles were encouraged, appreciated and admired.
Fast forward seven years of retirement and two children later, and, understandably, I have seen my body change. Getting rid of baby weight was a struggle and now I have baggy skin around a used-to-be toned stomach, and even on my arms and legs where muscles used to be. On the school run, the other mums do not care and most do not know that I used to be an Olympic athlete, that I used to be strong, fast and a pretty good badminton player! Looking around at the ‘yummy mummys’ at drop-off, all in the latest lycra aerobics gear, off to the gym for a spin class, or off for a jog on the treadmill, made me want to fit in. So I went and joined some classes and did some jogging, thinking, “This is it! I am finally going to be slim!” What I didn’t bank on was the mind-numbingly boring, claustrophobic classes with insanely loud Europop music and these women just pretending to do the exercise. Then afterwards their time was spent pushing a lettuce leaf around a plate. Every single day. AAAAARRGGGHHH!
My body didn’t improve, either. I refuse just to eat lettuce. My calf muscles are still big and now my once pert butt has sagged. I’m not slimmer, just saggier. And really hungry!
During this conflict of body image, I was asked to go to St Lucia to the BodyHoliday LeSport resort to run some beach-fit classes as part of their ‘Well Fit Families’ programme. As soon as I arrived at the resort and met the health and well-being team, I could feel a change washing over me about my current perception about fitness. That was all down to three women – Donna, Mindy and Marlene. These women are incredible athletes and specialise in sprinting, rugby and circuits. They dwarfed me in stature and athleticism. I was in awe and jealous! The way these women loved their bodies, and the way they used their muscles and looked strangely at me when I told them my turmoil, was an instant trigger. I knew then and there that I am never going to be or want to be a lettuce-eating gym-lollipop. I wanted my muscles back!
When I arrived home, I was back in training. Slow jogs went and were replaced by interval running. Insanity and circuit training replaced the more female-focused classes. In the gym, I am back on the floor doing single leg squats, kettle-bell exercises and medicine-ball throws. It has given me energy again which, as a mum of two boys aged five and two, I need a lot! I want to be able to keep up with them in the future. I want them to be proud of me.
I saw the picture of Serena Williams doing the splits on gymnastics bars on the cover of New York magazine and it made me smile. I will not be able to get to that level of muscularity, but I felt so proud of her for showing off what is, in no doubt, an incredible athletic body. There will be of course the murmurs from men saying that it is not attractive, but I will tell them this: there is nothing attractive about a half-hearted gym bunny who is permanently hungry!
I hope that Serena finds that healthy body image balance, both physically and mentally, when she retires. But my advice would be: we cannot change our genetic make-up; our bodies and our mind are what make us. Embrace what we are born with and be proud. Bring it on!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gail Emms MBE is one of Britain’s most successful badminton players, best remembered for her silver medal in the mixed doubles at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. With partner Nathan Robertson, she won gold at the World Championships in 2006, the Commonwealth Games in the same year, and the European Championships in 2004. Gail was six times national mixed doubles champion and national ladies doubles champion five times. Since retiring after the Beijing Olympic Games, Gail has been a versatile sports presenter on a variety of television and radio programmes. She was awarded the MBE for services to badminton in 2009. She is the mother of two boys.
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