Serena Williams, the world’s highest ranked women’s tennis player, recently won her 21st Grand Slam at Wimbledon. Yet her spectacular athletic accomplishments have been overshadowed by critiques of her femininity.
Williams, like numerous other female athletes of color, does not conform to the stereotypical image of beauty. This point has been a hot button issue as of lately.
The conversation reached its climax the evening before Williams’ noteworthy victory. That day, “The New York Times” frequent contributor Ben Rothensburg highlighted negative sentiments from her white counterparts. Despite Williams’ many victories, the article suggests, “perceived ideal feminine body type can seem at odds with the best physique for tennis success.”
Likewise in 2012, “The New York Times” published an article highlighting the manner in which Michelle Obama’s toned arms create an unrealistic and damaging expectation of beauty for all women. “Those bare, toned, elegant arms of hers have spawned an epidemic of sleevelessness, exposing arms, arms, arms, and not all of them toned and elegant.”
The systematic practice of objectifying, policing, and sexualizing Black women’s bodies has created a series of stereotypes that women like Michelle Obama and Serena Williams dishevel with their very existence. The barrage of body shaming obscuring Serena Williams’ most recent victory exemplifies the consequences of rebuffing racist and misogynistic body expectations.
Black women who demonstrate sexual expression or personal agency fall into the category of Jezebel. This caricature restricts Black women’s autonomy and propagates the myth of inherent “sexual deviousness and promiscuity.”
The sexually aggressive Jezebel stereotype is mirrored by the Sapphire caricature, which “portrays black women as rude, loud, malicious, stubborn, and overbearing.” Williams, however, is most associated with the Mammy caricature.
Since its inception, the Mammy stereotype has determined how veneration is afforded or denied to Black women. In Queering Black Female Heterosexuality, Kimberly Springer discusses the modern representation of the Mammy stereotype as the “Black lady.” The behavior associated with the Black lady stereotype designates Black women as “proper, middle-class, professional, and even-tempered.”
Serena Williams has graced the cover of several fashion magazines, including “Vogue,” but her deviation from the “classic” Eurocentric body image remains a cause for denigration within both White and Black communities. In a 2013 “Rolling Stone” article Stephen Roderick, the author, acknowledged one of the institutional problems that result from this white supremacist perception of beauty.
“Sharapova is tall, white and blond, and, because of that, makes more money in endorsements than Serena, who is black, beautiful and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas,” Roderick wrote.
While the article does call out a desperately unfair inequity, it also perpetuates the white perceptions of beauty at the root of those inequities. Dismissive statements about weight, appearance, and temperament recur in discussions about Serena Williams.
The comparison of Serena Williams to a monster truck employs the aggressive and savage characteristics seen within the Jezebel and Sapphire stereotype. “The Rolling Stone” article does include personal moments of vulnerability Williams’ experienced with body image and her path to self-acceptance.
However, despite the inclusion of a body positive message, the article is saturated with body shaming statements. “No athlete alive dominates a sport like Serena Williams does women’s tennis. But on the whole, she’d rather be eating cinnamon roll,” Roderick said. This statement about cinnamon rolls serves to police and shame Williams’ autonomy in her nutritional choices.
Body positivity discourse has consistently excluded women of color, and Black women in particular. The aforementioned New York Times article is a poignant example of this recurring failure. The article posted Friday, criticizes Serena Williams’ body image as a means to empower the body image of her white counterparts.
Maria Sharapova stated she “avoids weights in her training, instead focusing on stretching and preventive exercises, which she believes are more beneficial for tennis than adding muscle.”
The body shaming directed Black women in particular, appears to fall conveniently outside of the scope of body positive feminist discourse.
This is an unfortunate yet commonplace failure of mainstream or white feminism. In 2013, “Dove” launched a social media campaign entitled “Real Beauty” that aimed empower women and promote body positivity. “Real Beauty” claimed to empower all women and celebrate all body types but as noted by Lindsay King-Miller, the video and the campaign was limited to thin white women.
Centuries of strict cultural and social stipulations concerning beauty and desirability have created a space in which non-white women cannot be perceived as simultaneously desirable and successful.
Black women like Serena Williams existing within predominantly white societies protest traditional notions of beauty simply by being themselves. With body positivity on the forefront of the mainstream feminist agenda, the failure to address the racist misogyny directed at Serena Williams speaks to the failure of intersectional feminism.