Tennis star Garbine Muguruza’s red carpet weight question highlights Spain’s sexism problem

Comment: The former world No 1 retired last week, but was subjected to questions about her weight at the Laureus Awards in Madrid, Molly McElwee examines Spain’s ongoing issue surrounding sexism in sport

Monday 29 April 2024 09:47 BST
Muguruza arrives at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Madrid
Muguruza arrives at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Madrid (Getty Images for Laureus)

Former world No 1 Garbine Muguruza is Spain’s best female tennis player of the last decade. So when she retired earlier this month, aged just 30, she faced all the queries you might expect: why now? What will you miss about tennis? What will you do next?

One question though, she was not anticipating. On the red carpet, at the Laureus Awards in Madrid last week, Muguruza faced a throng of journalists and one piped up: “[People] were saying they can tell you’ve stopped training, especially on social media, people were attacking you harshly because of the shape you are in…”

Muguruza's eyes widened momentarily, as she was clearly taken aback. Then, she laughed. What else was she meant to do with that kind of question, four microphones and as many cameras thrust in her face?

Muguruza might have thought the days of answering questions about her body were over, considering she has no intention of playing professional tennis again. There is also the more obvious point: that it is frankly no one’s business.

On a red carpet, with dozens of paparazzi, journalists and people brandishing smartphone cameras to track her every move, the very last thing she might want to be reminded of are social media trolls. Namely those that have decided she no longer fits the impossible beauty standards set for women - let alone those expected for an elite female athlete.

But still she managed this ludicrous question with incredible poise. “Well, if I don’t train what’s going to happen?” Muguruza said, forcing another serene smile. “I want to live life, enjoy life. A training regimen is extremely hard, so when you can live life more and relax, you want to enjoy it. The physique of an Olympic athlete, we all know…” she let out another laugh. “Let’s be clear - the important thing is to stay healthy and enjoy life.”

The clip of Muguruza’s response has gained traction across Spain and created widespread debate. She has been praised for how she dealt with the situation by some, and rightly so. But she should not have been put in it in the first place.

Spain’s sports culture has been placed under the microscope in recent months, with sexism and inequality top of the agenda. It began with the former chief of the Spanish football federation Luis Rubiales planting an unsolicited kiss on striker Jenni Hermoso’s mouth during the World Cup trophy ceremony last August.

Rubiales’s actions tarnished Spain's historic winning moment and sparked huge backlash. Some of the women’s team boycotted matches, he was forced to resign and Hermoso testified that the kiss was not consensual. Even Spain’s Equality Minister Irene Montero described a normalization of sexist behaviour in Spanish society.

Muguruza at the US Open in 2022
Muguruza at the US Open in 2022 (AP)

The issue remains part of the news cycle, as Rubiales is due to face charges of sexual assault and coercion and could be served with a jail term of up to two-and-a-half years if found guilty. He has denied all wrongdoing.

Some hoped this reckoning would force meaningful change in Spain, but the reality suggests otherwise. Indeed, Hermoso’s Spain team-mate and Ballon d’Or winner Aitana Bonmati said domestic women's football still had “the same problems as always”, despite the national team’s victory on the world stage.

Bonmati and her team-mates were on the same red carpet as Muguruza on Monday, where the tennis star experienced yet another example of a sportswoman being publicly belittled. There were at least a dozen other retired male athletes present that night too, and I would hazard a guess that none of them were asked anything related to their body weight or their appearance. This is a standard only women are subjected to throughout their lives and, when it comes to sports, it directly impacts participation.

Research has told us time and again that girls drop out of sport due to body image-related worries and, even with top achievers, the issue remains. A BBC study in March found that more than a third of elite British sportswomen they surveyed had experienced disordered eating. Some said it was as a direct result of social media abuse about the way they look, others said they felt they did not look like what an athlete is “supposed to”. Earlier in the year, England and Chelsea midfielder Fran Kirby also shared the body shaming she had experienced online, and the negative impact it can have.

Garbine Muguruza attends the red carpet at the 2024 Laureus World Sport Awards in Madrid
Garbine Muguruza attends the red carpet at the 2024 Laureus World Sport Awards in Madrid (Getty Images)

Few people would dare to ask a person they do not know a direct question relating to their weight. While it was intrusive and potentially harmful for a journalist - and a female journalist at that - to ask Muguruza such a personal question in that environment.

During her career, Muguruza won both the French Open and Wimbledon, and is the only woman to ever beat Venus and Serena Williams in Grand Slam finals. Her body catapulted her to the kind of heights most cannot even fathom. But rather than focusing on what her body enabled her to achieve during such a glittering career, some of the focus was on how her body looks now.

It is remarkable that this still has to be said but, if in doubt, adopt this hard and fast rule: do not ask women about their weight.

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