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How Surya Bonaly set the standard for body acceptance

Author Shayla Lawson explains how the figure skater helped her accept her own body

In the 1990s, figure skater Surya Bonaly dazzled the crowds with her eye-catching makeup, flashy costumes and flawless routines. It was Bonaly’s skills that earned her five European Figure Skating Championships, but unfortunately, many chose to focus on her appearance the most. It became less about Bonaly’s bold backflips on ice or her perfect scores and more about her body image.

“There’s always some griper and some coach who just probably didn’t like Surya because she was fast and probably in the way of his skater,” former U.S. Olympic coach Frank Carroll said in an ESPN film. “Even though she was wonderful and even though she was spectacular and did great performances, she didn’t look like the ice princess.”

While Bonaly’s physique was often the center of both criticism and admiration, author Shayla Lawson was learning more about herself through the figure skater. Much like Bonaly, Lawson’s sculptured frame didn’t fit in with the norms. The way Bonaly embraced her own body and femininity encouraged Lawson to do the same.

Similar to me, Bonaly’s figure did not fit the contours and fragility of the ice princess; she was ridiculed by the world of figure skating — often more for her physicality than her immense talent as an athlete. Some in the figure skating world pegged her as a rebel. Even enthusiasts who described her performances as “wonderful” and “spectacular” mentioned her excellence with the caveat that she didn’t look like the typical “ice princess.”

Of course, “ice princess” was just shorthand for the fact Bonaly possessed some of the stereotypical markers of a black woman’s body. She had a short, muscular stature with thick thighs and legs. She had dark skin of unmistakably African origins.

In order to capitalize on the attention put upon Bonaly’s physical contrast with the pale ice princess aesthetic, and to bolster publicity, the French skating federation spread rumors about her heritage: that Bonaly was found off the coast of Madagascar as an infant, rescued from a coconut-strewn beach, the exotic juxtaposition of the jungle brought to the ice. The language that surrounds the legacy of Surya Bonaly is dangerous. The words do more to uphold long-standing biases against strength, independence and femininity than to further the integrity of competition.

Read more of Lawson’s story on espnW.

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.