TALLER than 99.35 percent of all Americans, the basketball player Brittney Griner has the wingspan of an albatross, wears sneakers more than twice as large as the average woman’s foot and, more saliently, perhaps, can dunk. It was the latter fact that turned her into a YouTube phenomenon when she first appeared on the scene a few years ago as a high school phenomenon in Houston.
Yet the widening visibility and fame of Ms. Griner, who is 6-foot-8, is also likely to make inroads on aspects of the culture where you’d have a hard time finding people who can tell a zone defense from a full-court press.
Feminine beauty ideals have shifted with amazing velocity over the last several decades, in no realm more starkly than sports. Muscular athleticism of a sort that once raised eyebrows is now commonplace. Partly this can be credited to the presence on the sports scene of Amazonian wonders like the Williams sisters, statuesque goddesses like Maria Sharapova, Misty May Treanor and Kerri Walsh, sinewy running machines like Paula Radcliffe or thick-thighed soccer dynamos like Mia Hamm.
As these women and their sisters took home trophies and stockpiled medals, they also helped reset the parameters for how feminine beauty is defined. It has been a century since women athletes were first released from chaste and restricting sports “costumes” and began flaunting their athleticism and muscularity. A lot happened in that time, not least the political awakening that provoked shifts in both consciousness and standards of what it meant to be a woman and play like a man.
“Brittney Griner is such an athlete, and so gifted, you almost don’t notice that she is part of a slowly unfolding, civilized response in this country to the slightly androgynous female,” said Terry Castle, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and a passionate fan of women’s basketball. “She calls our attention to the unnecessary rigidity of sex roles and makes a number of feminist points along the way.”
With her attenuated Gumby torso, coltish legs and tomboy features, the still growing Ms. Griner falls well outside familiar beauty standards. Yet for some in the image business — fashion stylists, model casting agents and editors — that is a large part of her potential appeal.
“I try never to work with just the type of person who’d be attractive to me,” said Katie Grand, the influential stylist and editor of Love magazine. “If you look at art through the ages,” Ms. Grand added, “some will always prefer a more straightforward beauty and others something untraditional.”
A woman of Ms. Griner’s appearance might be, Ms. Grand said, “fantastic to work with, since I try to work always with people who are interesting on a lot of levels,” and not merely those with model-pretty looks.
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