Serena Williams, with or without a baby, has always been a ‘real woman’
She used photos from her pregnancy to fight the ugly criticism she’s faced throughout her career
The Vanity Fair cover was #shotsfired.
I remember gasping upon seeing it. Serena Williams’ pregnant belly had popped, and there it was, along with the rest of her — glamorous, wind-swept, nearly nude, elegantly trolling us with a glance back to August 1991.
First thought: This b—- betta WERK.
Second thought: Eat your heart out, Demi.
On Friday, the 35-year-old Williams gave birth to her first child, a girl, at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. She entered the hospital Wednesday, claimed an entire floor of the maternity wing and was induced Thursday evening. She and her fiancé, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, 34, have been engaged since December 2016. The birth of the Williams-Ohanian baby marks the culmination of several months of famous-mommy-to-be hullabaloo for America’s greatest living athlete. Said hullabaloo allowed us to re-engage with all our worries, anxieties, hostilities, unsolicited opinions and concern-trolling about Williams and that magnificent body of hers that will never allow her the luxury of being a shrinking violet, even if she wanted to be one.
Fortunately for us, Williams was more than happy to publicly exult in her knocked-up condition, gifting audiences with glossy, high-profile photo shoots in Vanity Fair, Vogue and Stellar, the magazine of Australia’s Daily Telegraph. There was the #squadgoals baby shower that doubled as a sock hop, an appearance with Ohanian at the Metropolitan Museum Gala in a silky, jewel-toned gown that breezily skimmed her swollen belly, and plenty of Instagram pics showing off her tummy’s transformation. This was how Williams, tennis player extraordinaire, fashion maven and certified friend of Anna Wintour, was going to publicly perform her pregnancy: with aplomb. In the course of an unexpected pregnancy, Williams stumbled upon an opportunity not just to express herself but to once again reassert and broaden definitions of beauty.
It was refreshing to see her so nakedly happy and maybe, just maybe, enjoying the opportunity to tweak some of her rivals and twirl on her haters. After all, Williams just so happened to “accidentally” share the news of her pregnancy with a photo on SnapChat the same day as her rival Maria Sharapova’s birthday.
For as long as she’s been in the public eye, Williams has been asserting her femininity because for just as long, it’s been under attack. Williams is well-aware of her public image and the critiques of it. And while she’s come to a level of comfort and acceptance with herself, she’s also bristled for years over the conversation about her physique and her athleticism. So for her, a pregnancy was more than a chance to welcome a new life into the world. It was an opportunity to assert, once and for all, something that should be obvious: that, yes, Serena Williams is indeed a “real woman.”
It doesn’t take a gender studies major to understand that the standard of femininity that exists for American women is centered on whiteness. And not just any kind of whiteness, but a delicate, blond, thin, toned-but-never-overly-muscular, WASP-y whiteness. Lady lumps are welcome, as long as they don’t protrude so much as to give the impression of cheapness or signal a tawdry lack of control over one’s body or eating habits.
It’s a rigid standard that, despite our recognition of it, has continued to hold firm. And so, even though Williams is in a class of her own as a tennis player, Sharapova nets more in endorsement deals because she’s more “marketable.” This despite her 15-month suspension for using a banned drug.
Which brings us to Vanity Fair.
When Moore appeared on its cover in 1991, nude, pregnant and head turned just so as she stared into the middle distance, it was a pivotal moment in the way our society thought about women’s bodies and pregnancy. Being visibly pregnant was — well, it was a really obvious indication that a woman had had sex. For decades, pregnant celebrities were expected to make themselves scarce as they carried, and here was Moore, flaunting her fecundity all over the newsstands. It marked the moment that pregnancy, at least for celebrities, could be a publicity asset. It could be sexy and daring and provocative, and you didn’t have to cover it up in a series of unflattering muumuus a la Princess Diana — if you were white.
In 2013, Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings posed for ESPN The Magazine’s annual Body Issue.” She did two shoots, both nude: one while pregnant and one postpartum, cradling her sleeping baby against her body. Moore basically opened the door for images like those to exist and not be a big deal.
But there was a double standard for black celebrities. Twenty-six years after Moore’s momentous cover, Williams and Vanity Fair took a shot at that double standard by overtly referencing it. Williams’ pose wasn’t an exact replica — it was a little more defiant. The hand bra, as the pose came to be known, was the same, but Williams had her free hand cocked on her hip. In contrast to Moore’s relatively short locks, Williams was Lady Godiva, staring head-on into a wind machine out of frame. She’s completely in profile, rather than facing the camera. And she’s not quite naked. Instead, she’s wearing a belly chain over a thong matched to her complexion.
But more than anything, like Moore, she was hugely, roundly, unmistakably pregnant. For Williams, pregnancy provided a way to announce and assert her femininity, something she’s been doing over the whole of her career.
In an August interview with Stellar, Williams told the magazine, “I am about to be a real woman now, you know? It’s going to be something incredibly impressive to go through.”
It seemed like an innocuous quote, especially if you were familiar with the attacks that Williams has endured for decades about her looks. But some didn’t see it that way, and slammed Williams. “Didn’t know I had to have a baby to be a “real woman”..thanks for letting me know,” sniped one Twitter user.
Williams shares an unfortunate sisterhood with Michelle Obama. They’re both high-profile black women who have been repeatedly subjected to racist, sexist insults suggesting that they’re not real women, or that they’re not even human. Both have withstood barbs about their bodies simply because they don’t conform to WASP beauty standards.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, The Washington Post ran an interview with a Donald Trump supporter in western Pennsylvania who believed Obama “could be a man.” It’s a rumor that’s followed Obama since she entered the national spotlight, and it continues even though she’s returned to her role as a private citizen.
Opponents insulted Obama by calling her “Moochelle” and insisting she was overweight. A West Virginia official was suspended from her job after posting on Facebook, “It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady in the White House. I’m tired of seeing an ape in heels.”
Because of her muscular physique, her aggressive style of play and her blackness, Williams has weathered similar accusations. Williams couldn’t even escape “misogynoiristic” comments from professional journalists. In 2009, Jason Whitlock, then a columnist for Fox Sports, called Williams lazy and fat, compared her to a horse and accused her of “grazing at her stall between matches.”
When Williams won Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year designation in 2015, she had to face the fact that a number of sports fans were angry that she took the honor over American Pharoah, a horse — which, being, you know, equine, was not a sportsperson.
Williams accepted the honor with a bold, sexy photo shoot for the SI cover. She donned a black lace leotard and patent leather stiletto heels and posed on a throne, one leg draped suggestively over the arm of the chair. She confronts the viewer head-on, staring straight into the camera. If there was a thought bubble above her head, I swear it’d say, “You come at the Queen, you best not miss.”
We don’t have to guess about her thoughts on the Vanity Fair cover. “Being black and being on the cover was really important to me,” Williams told Vogue in August. “The success of one woman should be the inspiration to another, and I’m always trying to inspire and motivate the black girls out there. I’m not a model. I’m not the girl next door. But I’m not hiding. Actually, I look like a lot of women out there. The American woman is many women, and I think it’s important to speak to American women at a time when they need encouragement.”
Her father, Richard, anticipated the animus that Serena and her sister Venus would face as they ascended to tennis’s biggest professional spotlights. He famously trained his daughters on the public courts of Compton, California, and paid people to shout racist, sexist invectives at them to make them as tough mentally as they were physically. It’s become part of the lore of the rise of the Williams sisters.
When she yells at game officials, it serves as confirmation for those who see Williams as unrefined. When she first expressed a serious interest in fashion and developed a line called Aneres, many a male sportswriter dismissed it as frivolous and unimportant because it wasn’t related to tennis. When she decided to go to beauty school to become a certified nail technician (she even once gave Oprah Winfrey a pedicure) it was easy to wave off the move as a lark.
Williams has managed to do what she wants, regardless of public reaction, whether it’s sporting a black catsuit that leaves little to the imagination or launching a fashion line for HSN and presenting it at New York Fashion Week. When she joined Beyoncé in the “Sorry” video for Lemonade, she was the epitome of “thick thighs save lives.”
But that doesn’t mean the insults haven’t gotten to her. Because there’s no way to train yourself to tune out hate, not when it’s so loud and so personal.
“I don’t touch a weight, because I’m already super fit and super cut, and if I even look at weights, I get bigger,” Williams told The New York Times in 2015. “For years I’ve only done Thera-Bands and things like that, because that’s kind of how I felt. But then I realized that you really have to learn to accept who you are and love who you are. I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me. I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body.”
Just last year, Williams told The Guardian that she’s criticized for being “too muscly and too masculine, and then a week later too racy and too sexy.”
It’s easy to understand how pregnancy and motherhood could hold an outsize importance for Williams in her journey to loving, accepting and understanding herself as a woman in the body that she lives in. And it’s ironic that the life event that led her to exhibit such control over her public image is one that also requires ceding a bit of it, or sometimes a lot, to a tiny human gestating in utero.
If giving birth gives her a measure of comfort she wouldn’t otherwise have, no one should begrudge her. But Serena Williams, baby or no, has always been a real woman.