In defense of Thema (and the human body).
On the cusp of one of her most challenging steps on her journey to qualify for the 2016 Olympics gymnast Thema Williams is being forced to shift her focus away from training. She has been confronted with an additional challenge in her quest to represent Trinidad and Tobago in Rio. This new hurdle takes the form an email from Ms. Georgette Heinz which was sent to the Trinidad and Tobago Gymnastics Federation (“TTGF”) and local media. The email contains a picture with Ms. Williams topless but covering her breasts with her hands. The caption, “Being a black woman is an honour…always” is an uplifting and empowering quote about her joy and pride in being a woman of colour. The message is not about sex or being sexy or being an object of desire. It is about her pride at being beautiful and coloured. The message is one that needs to be promoted.
Ms. Heinz goes on to explain in the email that she is the parent of a young gymnast and was shocked when her daughter looking for pictures of Ms. Williams saw the picture above. Ms. Heinz is of the view that the picture is “Absolutely Disgraceful for a young lady who supposedly represents the best that T&T has to offer”. I would invite her to look at the picture again because what I see is young woman full of grace and poise. A radiant, confident, beautiful, talented athlete that is an excellent image of the best T&T has to offer. Perspective is everything!
Ms. Heinz also asks “What kind of example is this?” Now I mentioned that my girl Thema is busy prepping for the Olympics which is where her focus should be so I am going to try and step in and help her answer Ms. Heinz’s questions. The plain answer is that it is a good kind of example. It is a good example being set by a hardworking young woman who is pleased about her appearance AND her skin colour and she should be – she works hard several hours a day to have her body in the shape that it is in. She is a world class athlete with a beautiful body, why should she not be proud of her hard work and be able to show it off? It is a good example to young women on how to be content with your appearance. It is an excellent example of how to be happy with yourself. It is a good example of confidence and as much as I do not want to make this about race, it is also a good example of being happy about your race – about feeling comfortable in your own skin. We need more of these examples of women who have strong, positive feelings about their body image – whether their bodies are short, tall, thin or curvy, black, yellow, pink, blue, covered in tattoos or scars, clothed or nude. We face so many images in the media about women, most of them oversexualised. Here is one image that is not – it is not lewd or vulgar or suggestive and yet this is the one that Ms. Heinz takes offence with. Ms. Heinz – do you attempt to block your daughter’s eyes from the billboards and television commercials that sexualize women’s bodies to sell everything from fast food to bathroom tiles?
Ms. Heinz went on to explain that her daughter asked “Why doesn’t she have a top on?” and that she was completely horrified at the question. I am not the mother of a young girl so I do not understand why this is question is so horrific. I thought that this was an excellent opportunity for Ms. Heinz to explain to her daughter that Ms. Williams not have a top on because the human body is a beautiful thing and that Ms. Williams can choose what she wishes to do with her body. Could Ms. Heinz not explain that Ms. Williams is an adult woman who feels comfortable not wearing her top in that picture? Gymnast Aly Raisman, a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist felt comfortable being completely nude in the 2015 edition of ESPN magazine’s Body Issue. Navigating the waters of explaining human sexuality to children is always difficult but children – both boys and girls should be taught early on what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of nudity and behaviour. Children should be taught that taking off their clothes in public or in private should be something that they MUST feel comfortable doing. It’s a scary thought, but our kids need to know early on when they should and should not take off their clothes. Whether to take off your clothes – for a photo shoot of your muscled physique for a sports magazine, an instagram or snapchat post, a significant other, or any reason at all should always be a matter of personal choice – a personal choice that we ought to equip our children to make.
Ms. Heinz notes that she is not the first person who has been appalled by this picture. In a society where leaders commonly utter statements akin to victim shaming, she is most likely right. There are probably a lot of people who are appalled by the pictures. Conversely there are people who are just the opposite. There are quite a number of people do not regard the picture as offensive but rather see the picture of Ms. Williams as what she intended it to be – an artistic appreciation of her body. Several local performers have shown their solidarity by taking similar pictures and Thema has won many new fans like the gentleman in the pic below.
I personally, am grateful to Ms. Williams, who has reminded us that our bodies can still be about art and beauty and how we are feeling. Her candid photos reminds us that our bodies do not have to be reduced to the made-up, airbrushed, photo-shopped, oversexualised images promulgated throughout modern media. She reminds us that we can choose how to display our bodies and portray our feelings and emotions using our bodies, which is what I always felt the floor routine in gymnastics was about. The human body is a beautiful thing – it’s a shame Ms. Heinz missed this perfect opportunity to teach her daughter this important lesson. Perhaps it’s a lesson that she herself was never taught.
It is noted that the picture in question is almost a year old and was taken down a day after it was posted. It begs the question as to why this has only now become an issue for Ms. Heinz? It also makes me (and many others) question her motive and timing. Ms. Heinz also does not appear to be well-known in gymnastic circles in Trinidad and Tobago but she did make it clear to the TTGF that she will no longer support the TTGF and the sport of gymnastics if they continue to allow this to happen. As catastrophic as the loss of Ms. Heinz’s support may be for the TTGF and the sport of gymnastics as a whole, I would argue that the loss of Ms. Williams’ presence and talent on our Olympic team would be an even greater tragedy.
 Thema is not actually ‘my girl’ in the sense that I have not met her but I feel as women we need to build each other up and not tear each other down and as such every other woman out there is ‘my girl’.