Reading coverage of Serena Williams’ fifth Wimbledon singles win, as well as her doubles triumph with sister, Venus, I braced myself. Discussions about Williams too quickly devolve into worn attacks on black womanhood, includings assertions about laziness (29 Grand Slam titles); a uniquely bad attitude (John McEnroe, anyone?) and appearance. Always that.
Williams’ size, her muscles, and her derriere seem never to escape mention. This world-class athlete is even branded “fat.” This, like criticism of black, female Olympians, Jessica Ennis and Louise Hazel, should illustrate that much public judgement about black women’s bodies is not about our health and welfare, but exotification and the long-held belief that we are anti-women who lack the delicacy and femininity of other members of our gender.
We cannot go further without examining the sexism inherent in deriding female athletes for being big and strong, qualities that are praised in men, whether pros or weekend warriors. Sports are about athletic prowess not hotness. But while Roger Federer won praise in comments to a Huffington Post article about his Wimbledon triumph, responses to an article on Williams, included:
Power wins on grass courts, and Williams has no excuse not to win, being built like an NFL linebacker.
Too much testosterone for a woman.
More of a woman????? Ya, on steroids. 120 mph serve?? Most men dont hit that. It’s not just her size, it’s her attitude and classlessness that piss people off. Like her cute comment to the line judge last year, about how she was gonna jam the racket up her A**? So dainty.
I saw the match and I thought that Radwanska played a good match against a physically imposing if not intimidating player.
Williams is built like a man. She possesses too much testosterone. She hits too hard. She is physically intimidating. She isn’t dainty enough. Even before her win last week, one could find numerous queries to sites like Ask.com about whether Williams is fat. Williams herself spoke to Tyra Banks in 2009 about how such criticisms have hurt her.
Williams is not the only black, female athlete to be attacked for her size. British heptathlete Jessica Ennis was recently criticized by UK Athletics officials for being “too fat.” Coming to her teammate’s defense, 2010 gold medalist Louise Hazel said she too has been criticized for her size. Both women’s bodies are perhaps closer to the mainstream ideal than Serena Williams’, which could well point to the reality of all the talk about black women and size.
Everyday black women are castigated for being too big and we are told this is because of our health. But black women who are world-class athletes, poster children for good health and the amazing things the human body can do — well, they are also too big by mainstream standards.
For those of us who are not athletes, just black women who want to move often and eat well, it is important that our inspiration comes from our own desire for health and longevity, not in response to the cacophony of hand-wringing over black bodies. Because negativity hurled at women like Serena Williams proves that even when we win, some folks hampered by racism and sexism will want us to lose.