Sequins and Surya Bonaly: What figure skating taught me about body acceptance

Surya Bonaly Wegner/ullstein bild/Getty Images

In July and August, espnW's weekly essay series will focus on body image.

When I think of the years it took for me to accept my body as a vehicle both artistic and revolutionary, I remember Surya Bonaly.

I first saw her compete watching the 1992 Winter Olympics on television. With her electric eyeliner and sequined leotard, she was the frozen Grace Jones of dreams. In Surya, I saw a representation of my own figure, which was described as "too physical," "too defiant," "too sensual" during my years of training as a dancer.

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.

Bonaly's dynamism transformed the landscape of contemporary figure skating. By the age of 22, Bonaly had already won five consecutive European Figure Skating Championship titles. She was the undisputed French champion for nine years. In a sport with little innovation, Bonaly trademarked the one-foot backflip, a move attributed to no other competitive skater. She completed her career as a three-time world silver medalist and five-time European champion.

Reminiscent of the criticism women experience in the everyday world, the notion that a sport dominated by powerful women requires its participants to conform to a version of femininity that complies with stringent cultural normativity comes as no surprise. However, this should not be the burden of an athlete (or any person, for that matter) -- to fit the talents and triumphs of an extraordinary body into one narrowly defined box.

I must have been about 16 when my mother took my sister and me to see Champions on Ice. Surya Bonaly performed, fresh off her final Olympic run in Nagano, Japan, the place where, still recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon, she debuted her signature backflip at the risk of disqualification. In Champions on Ice, her routine was not flawless. She fell while trying to complete a triple axel but finished smiling and waving with all the charm of Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco. The tenaciousness of Surya Bonaly makes her more of a champion than all of her titles combined.

For the girl I was back then -- still trying to starve and destruct myself to fit in the status quo -- she will always be an icon. Ferocity in sequins, Bonaly performed one death-defying backflip after the other, both on and off the ice.

Shayla Lawson is the author of three poetry collections: "A Speed Education in Human Being" (Sawyer House Press, 2013), "PANTONE" (MIEL Books, 2016), and the forthcoming "I Think I'm Ready to See Frank Ocean" (Saturnalia Books, 2018). She is a member of the Affrilachian Poets.