Indian Tennis Star Sania Mirza, a Pro at Being “First”

Sania Mirza. (Courtesy of ndtv.com)

Sania Mirza. (Courtesy of ndtv.com)

Sania Mirza knows what it’s like to be the first. From 2003 to 2013, the women’s tennis star was ranked as the No.1 player in India in both singles and doubles, as well as the Association of Tennis Professionals’ (ATP) overall highest-ranking female tennis player in Indian history. The 3-time major mixed doubles champion is also the first-ever Indian to surpass $1 million in tennis earnings.

In a storied career of Indian-firsts, however, Mirza’s most honorable “first” distinction could very well be the one she most-recently earned off the tennis court.

On Nov. 25, the United Nations named Mirza the Goodwill Ambassador for South Asia at its International Day to End Violence Against Women. The 28-year-old is the first-ever South Asian woman to be appointed Goodwill Ambassador.

Upon receiving the UN’s distinction, Mirza voiced her desire to fight the epidemic of gender disparity and violence against women in South Asia, while also empowering women to strive for equality.

“My role is a very important battle that I will fight off the tennis court for gender equality,” the 2014 WTA Finals champion said. “Gender equality is what I believe in.”

To Mirza, the problem is cultural, as women are often made to feel like second-rate citizens by their male counterparts.

“To that effect, there is an urgent need to change this mindset,” Mirza said. “Women must be made aware that they are equal to men.”

At the UN event, Mirza also emphasized the need for men and women of all walks of life to get on board with making sports, as well as life, more female friendly in South Asia.

“Equality depends on each and all of us,” said the 2014 mixed doubles US Open champion. “From the government that changes its laws, to the company that advances equal pay and equal opportunity, to the mother and father who teach their daughter and son that all human beings should be treated equally, to the athletes who demonstrate equality and excellence.”

Likewise, the tennis star urged members of the media to advocate for gender equality, as she acknowledged that their influence on modern South Asian society is considerable and far-reaching.

“Media has the biggest voice; they can and should make a difference,” Mirza stated.

At the UN event, Mirza also opened up about her own struggles as a female athlete in India.

“It is difficult to be Sania Mirza in this country,” admitted the first-ever Indian to crack the World Tennis Association’s top 50 rankings. “I think a lot of controversies that I had faced in my career was because I am woman. Had I been a man, I could have avoided some of the controversies.”

UN Assistant Secretary-General Lakshmi Puri touted Mirza’s vast athletic achievements and fervent voice for social issues as reasons for her appointment as the UN’s Goodwill Ambassador.

“She has been a role model to many children, including girls to break barriers and strive for their goals in life and career choices,” Puri said. “She has used the spotlight on her professional success to highlight social issues that are of concern for many Indians.”

With her most-recent distinction, Mirza looks forward to serving as an even louder voice for women’s equality than she was in the past.

“It inspires me to work hard towards a level playing field for women,” Mirza declared. “Gender equality in sports as well as using sports to advocate for gender equality in communities is essential.”

If Mirza’s track record of barrier-breaking feats is any indication of what to expect from her tenure as Goodwill Ambassador, more “firsts” are surely on the way for women in the movement towards gender equality in South Asia.

The Fine Line Between Muscles and Masculinity

For a college or professional athlete, there is no escaping the weight room. It is an essential ingredient in the recipe for athletic success when competing at a high level. The combination of strength and skill allows athletes to raise their levels of play to extraordinary heights, while altering their physical appearances in the process.

Serena Williams. (Courtesy of Neil Munns)

Serena Williams. (Courtesy of Neil Munns)

As a female athlete, however, the recipe for athletic success is often complicated by societal pressures and gender norms. Because of the common social stigmas that come with being a muscular woman, female athletes are often faced with a conflicting desire to get stronger in order to improve their athletic performances, while attempting to avoid the attainment of a masculine physique.

For women, a constant pressure exists to be toned, but never jacked. But, at what point does one lose her girlish softness, which the media tells us is essential for femininity? For females athletes, it is somewhere between the squat rack and the barbell.

During my experience as a Division I college athlete, I have personally grappled with the issue of maintaining femininity in a sport that requires actions that are anything but feminine.

For a power sport like softball, where quick and explosive spurts of energy are required for success at the college level, weightlifting involves much more than your typical treadmill workout with an occasional dumbbell thrown into the mix. With movements like cleans, snatches, squats, and presses making up our daily training regimens, my teammates and I often find ourselves struggling to fit into our street clothes without standing out amongst other females in the crowd.

In order to uphold our femininity in the eyes of onlookers, we compete with faces full of makeup, hair tied back with ribbons, and body parts adorned in jewelry. Despite our efforts, however, our physiques still hinder others’ perceptions of us, as we are often judged by both our athletic and non-athletic contemporaries as being manly because of our muscles.

The idea that muscles are reserved solely for men and wanting them is a sin worth reprimanding is still an issue that often plagues female athletes today. According to Vikki Krane, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, society’s perception that muscles equate to masculinity often makes women self-conscious of their appearances, and can lead to eating disorders which hinder health and athletic performances.

Even an elite athlete like tennis star Serena Williams feels self-conscious about her muscular appearance. In 2009, the 33-time Major Champion confessed feelings of insecurity about her well-built arms in an interview with People Magazine.

“I think they’re too muscular. They’re too thick,” Williams said. “Look at Michelle Obama. I’m like, ‘keep wearing strapless dresses!’ But I don’t like mine.”

Athlete Camille Leblanc-Bazinet competing at the CrossFit Games. (Courtesy of CrossFit, Inc.)

Athlete Camille Leblanc-Bazinet competing at the CrossFit Games. (Courtesy of CrossFit, Inc.)

Much of these notions of unattractiveness come from the media’s perception that the stronger the female, the more masculine characteristics she will possess.

Judgment of female appearances and the over-sexualization of women cannot be avoided, even in highly competitive settings. When the phrase “female athletes” is searched on Google, the first two results that come up are Men’s Fitness Magazine articles for “The Sexiest Female Athletes of 2014” and the “Top 10 Sexiest Female Athletes of 2013.” In fact, five of the nine initial results found involve the words “hot” or “sexy” in reference to the description of female athletes.

Achieving the media-driven depiction of the “ideal” athletic body hardly involves the bulky biceps and bulging quadriceps that are realities for most high-level female athletes.

The truth of the situation is that there are no easy answers for female athletes because society does not make it easy to be a muscular woman.

However, with all clichés and nuances aside, overcoming the stigma of being a muscular female athlete starts with the athletes themselves. By refusing to accept society’s expectations as acceptable norms, more women will be empowered by their strength instead of intimidated by it.

With initiatives like Nike’s “strong is the new beautiful” t-shirts, popular Twitter hashtags like #girlswholift, and the emerging popularity of the CrossFit Games on ESPN, more attention than ever is being focused on female strength. The continued exposure of muscular women to the general public will make female strength less of a misunderstood enigma, and more of an accepted norm.

And like any other social movement in our world today, with enough people behind the cause, a change in opinions is definitely feasible.

Five NCAA Female Athletes to Watch this Fall

College campuses across the country are once again bustling with students and professors. With the return of school also comes the return of NCAA sports. Although college football players often dominate the fall sports marquee, the NCAA also boasts some electrifying female athletes worth mentioning during its autumn action. Take a look at five Division I female athletes to watch this fall.

Abby Dahlkemper looks to lead UCLA to its second straight NCAA title. (Courtesy of UCLA Sports Information)

Abby Dahlkemper. (Courtesy of UCLA Sports Information)

Abby Dahlkemper – UCLA Soccer

Senior defender Abby Dahlkemper not only led UCLA to its first national championship in 2013, but she also became the first-ever Bruins player to win the Honda Award for soccer. She is a three-time All-American, as well as a three-time First Team All-Pac-12 honoree. Dahlkemper was the leader of UCLA’s defense last season, which finished first in the nation with 18 shutouts and had a goals against average of 0.30. The 2013 NSCAA Scholar All-America Player of the Year was also the first defender in 10 years to be named a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy in 2013, which is given to the top male and female college soccer players in the nation.

Emily Wold – UNC Field Hockey

On the heels of a masterful 2013 season, midfielder Emily Wold entered her junior campaign on the preseason All-ACC squad for the second-ranked Tar Heels. Wold was recognized as a First Team All-America selection in 2013, and is the reigning South Region Player of the Year. She led the nation in assists last season with 23 and took her team to the NCAA national semifinals. Wold was also the only collegiate member of the U.S. Women’s National Team this past summer.

Micha Hancock. (Courtesy of Jeff Moreland)

Micha Hancock. (Courtesy of Jeff Moreland)

Micha Hancock – Penn State Volleyball

Hancock, a two-time AVCA First Team All-American, enters her senior season fresh-off a national championship with the Nittany Lions. The 2013 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player was also named the Big Ten Setter of the Year last season, after ranking second nationally and first in the Big Ten in aces per set, with 0.65. Penn State’s all-time career leader in aces led her team’s offense with a .305 hitting clip. She and the rest of a young Nittany Lions squad are off to a hot start, and are currently the third-ranked team in the country.

Morgan Brian – UVA Soccer

Brian, a senior midfielder and U.S. Women’s National Team member, led Virginia to the NCAA national semifinals last season, while also winning the MAC Hermann Trophy and being named the Soccer America Player of the Year. The two-time NSCAA 1st Team All-American tied for the ACC lead in scoring with 46 points on 16 goals and a league-leading 14 assists in 2013. She was named to Soccer America’s pre-season All-America team this year, and her second-ranked Cavaliers are poised for another strong finish.

Emma Bates. (Courtesy of Rick Bowmer)

Emma Bates. (Courtesy of Rick Bowmer)

Emma Bates – Boise State Cross Country

Bates was the 2013 NCAA Cross Country National Runner-Up, and received First Team All-America honors in the outdoor 5,000m and 10,000m events. She is the reigning NCAA West Region Champion and USTFCCCA West Region Women’s Athlete of the Year. This redshirt junior distance runner came within three seconds of the NCAA title last year and will likely be the favorite at this year’s championships.