Artists look at the struggle of the black female athlete
We asked women of color for their thoughts on how these athletes are portrayed
The Undefeated commissioned a study by the Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication on the history of black women in athletics and how racist stigmas and stereotypes, everything from insults about their sexuality and appearance to death threats from extremists, have affected their advancement.
We then asked several female artists of color to interpret this difficult history as well as their own experiences with how society views black women. Here’s what they came up with:
My work focuses on people of color, specifically women of color. I like to believe my mission is to insert people of color in the public’s eye. One of my current series takes people of color and combines elements of fantasy and sci-fi, genres where we are either background characters or not featured at all. My art is about seeing yourself represented in a new way.
My illustration examines how the media and viewer entangles the female black athlete with criticism and unrealistic expectations. Despite breaking world records and excelling in championship games, the female athlete is scrutinized for her body, beauty and femininity. No matter how phenomenal her game, she is never enough. From being called aggressive to having her body compared with animals, all while her level of skill and dedication to a sport are ignored, she could get caught up in a whirlwind of commentary, throwing her off her game. Instead, she prevails.
This piece is inspired by the story of Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman. Baartman was a South African woman who was exhibited because of her large buttocks as an attraction for Europeans in the 1800s. Fast-forward to the present day and the bodies of black women continue to be criticized, ridiculed and sought after for amusement. Black athletes are commonly critiqued for their muscular physiques and are forced to live in the intersection of sexism and racism. The illustration shows a Serena-inspired woman with an athletic build along with a spectator in the background. It implies the idea of viewing black women’s bodies as “attractions.” While the woman is being viewed for amusement, there’s an emphasis on her size in the frame, highlighting the power of the black female form.
This piece is a representation of the criticism and stereotypes that some people have about African-American athletes. The words on the hurdles show how society and some people see these women, while the words on their chests are how they see themselves. The hurdles represent the constant obstacles African-American women have to overcome. Although it is difficult, they power through it and still achieve their goals.
The image, Girls Can, is a statement of resilience. It proposes that girls and women today, fortified by the legacies of the women before them, are laser-focused on forward movement. There are people praying for their victory, others for their downfall. Either way, they have their sights set solely on the finish line.
Everyone uses a mirror, but we all see different things. You look in the mirror, start picking apart everything wrong and ask yourself why you are so flawed. You’re wishing to be different and to look perfect, even as other people tell you what’s wrong with you and you start seeing flaws you didn’t know about. Young girls should not be taught that their bodies are wrong because they have been working hard physically. We can teach young girls to be strong and believe in themselves.
The collage is an array of successful black women across the black rainbow with different abilities, different physiques and different strengths, in strong and determined poses. As a black woman myself, what I believe needs to be put across through my artwork, and what the media often omits, is the determination of the black woman. The media often pits women against each other, so I have each drawing of the women in this montage bleed into each other slightly, as a sign of unity. A young black girl can look at this piece and see herself somewhere — and see a winner.
My goal with this illustration was to demonstrate that women are strong and beautiful, despite the negative and demeaning opinions of media critiques and popular culture. In this illustration, I portrayed a strong athletic woman celebrating her victory in her natural state, with natural hair and no makeup. I used the orchid flowers around her to represent strength, beauty and graciousness. The color red serves as strength and passion. The gold accents embody her worth and success. Black women in general have to deal with much criticism and disapproval from the media and popular culture despite how well they perform athletically. Black women’s femininity is constantly questioned because of their looks and body types. They are called “masculine” or “gorilla” among other objectifying names, although their muscular builds are the reason they excel in their sport. You should not have to choose between being strong and being a woman. Black women need to stop being judged on their sexual appeal to others as part of their athletic talents.
Women like sprinter Carmelita Jeter or tennis player Serena Williams are symbols of skill and dominance in their field. However, there has also been an enormous amount of attention brought to their body type. While fetishizing black women is nothing new, in the age of social media, the discussion around the bodies of these athletes can be heard loud and clear. Specifically, when talking about female athletes of color, especially black athletes, these women cannot escape their bodies being considered “masculine” in the process. It’s unflattering and strips away the idea that physical strength can also be a female attribute.
I chose to illustrate these stereotypes and how these athletes have been able to capture the attention of a nation despite being women of color. My illustration captures both a female athlete of color’s athletic dominance and her physical dominance. Her physicality and athleticism are entirely her own, and aren’t something that should be considered “manly.”
Why is physical strength often perceived as attractive for a man yet unattractive for a woman? Her legs are too muscular, shoulders too broad, chest too flat, and the list goes on. … Add these characteristics to the curvaceous build of many black females, and in return they’re faced with an army full of critics. Simone Biles is one of the most decorated athletes, breaking major barriers even before her 2016 debut at the Summer Olympics. You’d think a world champion with 14 medals would be praised for her competitive style and grace, but social media quickly expressed its dissatisfaction with everything from her hair to her muscular build. That constant criticism can result in insecurities and self-esteem issues no matter how hard one tries to ignore it, but Biles quickly learned to overcome this. I show the balance beam supported by hands to symbolize her teammates and family who have aided in her confidence and self-love. Biles ignored the negative headlines and tweets and focused on being the best athlete she could be. I wanted to portray her strength and focus, which have kept her in the winner’s circle and saying, “I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles.” I encourage others not to fall victim to people hiding behind a keyboard. Find balance, persevere and be happy.
We’re not always represented. So here we are. Captured in an exhibit at a museum titled HEREWEARE, the goal was to capture the beauty in black women. We are everywhere. We are power. We are culture.
Throughout history, African-American women are constantly denigrated based on their physical appearance and how society misunderstands, ignores or fetishizes it. Even more so, women athletes undergo a severe amount of pressure to maintain an extremely fit body and to still present themselves as feminine. In this piece, I wanted to highlight Serena Williams’ face of victory. After most matches, she beams with joy and triumph, and I thought it was influential to showcase her widely known expression after winning her first official match at the BNP Paribas Open since giving birth to her daughter. It’s important to recognize the transition that women’s bodies undergo during and after pregnancy and the pressure there is to have a conditioned body. Serena is proving to be a powerful woman, both on and off the tennis court, and joy on an African-American woman’s face deserves to be showcased. Rather than choosing to fetishize, critique or shame the body of African-American women athletes, we should be celebrating women who acknowledge the tiers of their strength and transcend society’s opinion.
My body has gone through various transformations since my early 20s, and while I was accepting everything it was doing, others around me were critiquing. I was called a man, asked to dress like a girl, be more feminine, and also to change my hair.
I have to admit that those comments hurt. I ignored them mostly because, at first glance, people don’t know that I’ve run 10 marathons and six ultramarathons. At one point, I was able to squat 315 pounds. I remember running my first marathon and a woman twice my size made it look effortless while I was struggling. I remembered thinking that I would love to know how she made it look so easy more than 20 miles in. I learned the value of training for those distances, which made me happy.
Being the body that others wanted didn’t make me happy. Now that I’m in my early 30s, I’m allowing my body to do what it wants. It took a while to achieve this mindset. It’s truly incredible what my body can do. Right now, I’m training for a half Ironman. While I get motivated by seeing fellow athletes training in their online highlight reels, it took me a while to focus on the unfiltered versions of true grit that make us what we are. I do realize that traditionally “pretty women” get the likes. However, I don’t think we are meant to be photoshopped to fit that criteria if we are not. While the media was teaching me to focus on their idea of beauty, I turned to incredible athletes like Serena Williams, who seems to constantly have to explain her existence, even if she’s arguably the greatest athlete of all time. To me, Serena demonstrates her femininity and also embraces what her body is doing. I’m doing the same.