, The Op-EdsOn Serena Williams, Equality, and Her ‘Porn Shoot’ Sports Illustrated Feature

On Serena Williams, Equality, and Her ‘Porn Shoot’ Sports Illustrated Feature

My favorite athlete of all time—Serena Williams, of course— did a feature for Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, and it is glorious. She is radiant, she looks like she’s having a ton of fun, and she is rocking the hell out of some dental floss passing as bathing suits.

Alas, not even five minutes after seeing the photos was I assaulted by some capital-n Nonsense in written form:

The pictures broke a recent trend for Serena. She has done her bit in the past to raise the issue of equality in sport.[…]

In November she wrote an open letter about equality and equal pay: “Women have to break down many barriers on the road to success. One of those barriers is the way we are constantly reminded we are not men as if it is a flaw. We should always be judged by our achievements, not by our gender.”

The exception to the last line, it seems, is when you want to get your kit off.

When an athlete like Serena goes from acing another Grand Slam to taking her clothes off for a magazine […] it shows success doesn’t change some women’s desire to be validated for how they look.

In the behind-the-scenes video, Serena says: “I want people to come away with the fact that its okay to be comfortable in your body. I feel like its okay to look strong, to be sexy and to be a woman.”

Hold on Serena. So to look strong, sexy and to be a woman involves baring your butt and boobs? What happened to being “judged by our achievements and not by our gender” or was that way of thinking inconvenient for this kind of glamour photo-shoot?

Why does Serena feel the need to wear barely-there bikinis to “be a woman” when the best advertisement she gives of being a woman is the way she plays?

Maybe, she doesn’t want tennis to define her. It’s hard to forget her sassy Sports Illustrated front page cover a few years ago when she had one high-heeled foot draped over the arm-rest of a golden throne. I even liked (not really) the way she danced (terribly) in Beyoncé’s video Sorry.

But by baring (practically) all in this Swimsuit issue, Serena has loaded importance on her body parts rather than what her body enables her to do as a tennis player. [source]

It’s beginning to be a recurring theme around here, that once a year, every year, I’m writing about someone who refuses to simply let Serena live.

Apparently, Serena’s choice to participate in the swimsuit issue means she believes that “looking strong and sexy” involves a bikini and a thong. Apparently, according to this writer, Serena “feels the need” to wear bikinis to “be a woman.”

Appaaaaaaaaaaarently, the fact that Serena wears bikinis—or not, as seen in one of the photos— and seeks validation on her body invalidates all of the amazing work Serena has done in the name of equality.

Here’s the problem: the author essentially created this apparent perspective of Serena’s out of thin air.

On their face, these three sentences seem to make sense. However, when you remember that Serena never said a) “looking strong and sexy involves a bikini,” b) that she “feels the need to wear barely-there bikinis to ‘be a woman,'” or c) that the goal of her photo shoot was to receive validation.

If anything, I’d suggest that the photo shoot was designed to do the exact opposite.

The writer’s ultimate point is that all of the work Serena has done in the world is invalidated by her apparent need to have her body validated by a world that is thirsty for reasons to look down upon women. Ironically—or, predictably, depending on where you sit—the writer also takes her fair share of pot shots at Serena, seemingly thirsty for her own opportunity to snark and look down upon Williams, arguably one of the most phenomenal athletes of our time.

The author writes,

To some, women like Serena who are not short of money, have fit athletic bodies and decide themselves to take their kit off is proof of how far women have come.

Oh please, it does nothing of the sort. It instead underlines the historical and societal value which continues to be placed on the way girls and women look, and girls and women’s part in playing out that role.

First and foremost, “the historical and societal value” that is “placed on the way girls and women look” isn’t the fault of “girls and women.” It never has been, never will be. The choice to devalue a person based on their appearance is solely and exclusively the responsibility of the person making the choice to devalue another human being. Ignoring this does nothing more than make girls and women the scapegoat of those in power, making up reasons to not value us as they should… even when we are contenders to be the greatest athlete of all time.

Furthermore, Serena has spent years being denigrated in the media for being too black, too muscular, too unfeminine. Serena has been called every racist variation of an “ape” because, as black women, that’s what racists use against us. She’s constantly accused of being on steroids because she has the temerity to actually train and actually look like someone who is serious about her sport. Lest we forget, the New York Times published an essay that blithely featured quotes from Serena’s competitors, who claimed they weren’t going to train as hard as her because they “want to look like women.”

This is a woman who is constantly being derided by the public. Is it so far fetched to think that she’s given up on seeking the validation of the people who apparently hate the presence of muscle on women? What if her photo shoot was, say, her way of saying “you might not like this body, but I love it and I won’t hide it simply because you think I should?” What if she’s actually saying…exactly what she said?

“I want people to come away with the fact that its okay to be comfortable in your body. I feel like its okay to look strong, to be sexy and to be a woman.”

What if the bikini just happens to be her way of exemplifying that? What if she knows that a body as athletic as hers is a deviation from the norm of what’s usually in the swimsuit issue, and she’s choosing to be proud of that instead of ashamed of it?

In fact, let’s go to Serena’s own words on this:

I think the media as a whole is finally starting to embrace and celebrate all different body types, and women are more confident about being themselves because of it. [source]

If a society with unchecked roots in male dominance says that a woman is unequal, it doesn’t matter how she is dressed. It was decided long before she entered the equation, and that doesn’t change because she decides to wear a muumuu or a—gasp—pantsuit.

We should all be more familiar with the “they don’t respect you because you’re half-naked” argument. It’s the fraternal twin of the “they don’t respect you because you won’t pull up your pants” argument. Same parents, same goal: to force everyone to assimilate to that WASPy ideal, with women in full length skirts and still somehow being relegated to “The Kitchen” because work is “a man’s thing.”

Taking a look at the author’s twitter account, she’s proclaiming that she holds this negative view because she is “a feminist” who thinks the only value of photography like this is to objectify women. I disagree—photography is a record of a moment in time. It shows us what we value, because we put it front and center. We give it prominence. That’s why so many women hide from cameras when their face or hair or bodies aren’t picture perfect—they don’t believe they deserve to be recorded in such a state. Serena’s presence only helps change our perception of who can enjoy their own body, and what it looks like to enjoy your own body despite public disrespect.

It’s always easy to declare yourself a feminist if your feminism essentially boils down to punching down. Blaming the person being judged instead of focusing your attention on the person who shouldn’t be denying respect to human beings in the first place is neither progressive nor feminist. It’s little more than lazy, passive aggressive protection of the status quo. And, really… don’t we deserve more than that?

Facebook Comments
By | 2017-07-25T01:42:18+00:00 February 20th, 2017|Body Image, The Op-Eds|1 Comment

About the Author:

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes food and fitness, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss by the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is also certified in sports nutrition by Precision Nutrition. She now lives in New York with her husband and children, and is working on her 6th and 7th certifications because she likes having alphabet soup at the end of her name.

One Comment

  1. Simi March 3, 2017 at 11:58 AM - Reply

    This is so true and the same goes for racism.

Leave A Comment

Are you ready to join the #bgg2wlarmy and achieve your weight loss goals?

 

 

Join the squad, and let's reach our goals together!

— Weekly positive affirmations

— The latest news in food & fitness

— Delicious recipes

— Insightful discussion

— Tips to help you on your journey