Serena Williams is without a doubt one of the best athletes of our generation. After securing her 21st grand slam win at Wimbledon, and that defining New York Magazine cover above, Williams is a force to be reckoned with, and is carving out an inspirational legacy that continues on and off the court. Her athletic ability is just one of the elements she should be admired for, alongside her never-ending strength against the constant criticism she faces.
Instead of focusing on her domination on the court, incessant criticism plagues Serena — about her body, hair and general appearance — criticism that often follows women of color. This criticism is often laced with racist connotations, as the criticism on her physical appearance range from labeling her as a “ugly monkey,” to stating that she has a body like a man — the Russian Tennis Federation even called Serena and her sister, Venus, “the Williams brothers.” This obsession and constant disrespect in relation to Serena’s figure alongside many other women of color — from Nicki Minaj to Misty Copeland — have implications linking to society’s mistreatment of the black female body.
The black woman’s body has always been treated as the “other” in relation to white women. Mainstream beauty standards often don’t include the black female body, and Serena is just one of many examples of black women whose bodies have been labeled everything but “ideal.”
Misty Copeland was also a victim of body shaming, after being told her body was too muscular and mature when she was rejected from a ballet company at the age of 13. Forget the fact that those muscles are — and continue to be — a testament to Copeland’s hard work and dedication to the arduous sport of ballet. To be told at 13 years old that your body isn’t ideal would be hard enough as young woman, but unfortunately this form of body criticism doesn’t have an age limit for black girls.
Do we all remember the constant critique that followed Blue Ivy Carter for rocking her natural hair? A 2-year-old ridiculed by the media and on social media, as many took to Twitter and Instagram to mock the appearance of a young child. This treatment of black girls and body shaming women of color remains consistent in our society, where their features, style, and music are uplifted but black women themselves are not.
Amandla Stenberg also spoke on this recently, writing a powerful message on her Instagram: “Black features are beautiful. black women are not.” This is a sad reality perpetrated by the media, which praises many aspects of black culture, but ridicules the very black women who naturally have or represent these things.
The media will happily critique Serena’s calves, butt and muscles, but will praise Iggy, J. Lo, and Kim Kardashian for embracing their curves. The contradiction of embracing the bodies of some, while mocking the bodies of others doesn’t seem to be acknowledged in the media, and continues to keep negative representations of black women alive. While Nicki Minaj’s video for Anaconda was met with much criticism for being explicit and “vulgar,” J-Lo & Iggy Azalea’s “Booty” video was seen as a powerful display of feminism, and credited the two artists as originators of the new “big booty” movement. Forget about Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, hell — even Sir Mix A Lot, right?
There’s no question that women as a whole are dealt a hard hand when it comes to body shaming, and that there is constant pressure about our appearance. But unfortunately for black women, this pressure begins at a very early age, teaching them that the way they are born — from their natural hair, to their bodies, and their attitudes — are just not up to par in society.