Tennis legend Serena Williams is the polar opposite of the lithe, blonde supermodel type society insists on telling us has the ideal female form. Especially in the traditional, rather insular world of tennis, she breaks every rule.
Over two decades, Williams has heard it all. The body shaming has been relentless. Williams was too big, too strong. Her muscles were too suspiciously well developed. She was too black, too loud and too competitive. She was too … everything.
But at age 36, Serena has become unapologetically, unreservedly herself.
In the closing chapters of her legendary career, Williams has never been more open, more outspoken about who she is and what she represents.
She is using her global platform to stand up for women, especially mothers after giving birth to her own daughter in September, who share the same struggles even if they don’t have her fame, talent or success.
Williams has posed in a bikini for Sports Illustrated. She has worn form-fitting dresses that emphasize her spectacular biceps, after years of covering them with long sleeves.
She spoke before Wimbledon about the struggles of losing weight while breastfeeding, despite her vegan diet.
“I was vegan. I didn’t eat sugar. I literally have my chef total vegan. Not French fry-eating vegan. Totally eating completely healthy. I wasn’t at the weight that I would have been had I not,” she says.
“You hear, ‘When you breast-feed, you lose weight, you’re so thin.’ That wasn’t happening to me.
“What I’ve learned through the experience: Every body is different, every person is different, every physical body is different. For my body, it didn’t work. No matter how much I worked out, no matter how much I did, it didn’t work for me.”
Williams says she dropped 10 pounds in a week when she stopped breastfeeding. “I wanted to say that so women out there know that’s not true. Everyone takes things different. I think it’s important for us to share that message.”
In Paris in June, Williams revealed her full-body catsuit for her return to competitive tennis at the French Open after having a baby in September.
Serena Williams in her full-body catsuit at the French Open in Paris in June.
It hid nothing. It showed a strong, full-figured athlete whose intense training was interrupted for months as she started a family. It showed the Serena Williams of 2018: a woman in her mid-30s who had significant health issues after giving birth to daughter Olympia. It highlighted every curve and bulge in an athlete working to get her fitness back while shedding baby weight that could slow her down on court.
“First and foremost, you have to get your core back, which is hard, because it literally spreads when you have a baby. That’s difficult. And just coming back from the physical demands of having a baby at my age is never, I think, really easy,” she says.
This is the woman Serena is. And she’s proud of it.
“I have been really candid. With me speaking out about all my postpartum problems and all the issues that I had, a lot of people have really reached out,” she says. “There have been so many other women who have been through the same thing, and we just don’t talk about it. So no one really knows about it. But now that we have that platform and now that we are talking about it, I am vocal about it.”
Several players spoke out during the French Open about how they thought the catsuit might be against tennis’s strict rules on attire. “I definitely thought there would be a lot of reactions over the outfit. It’s not a typical outfit. But what’s typical, you know? Who makes the rules? I feel like in 2018 the world’s different. It’s important to be yourself and to bend things and to try something new and to try something fresh,” she says.
There was an additional element of functionality in the compressive nature of the garment, given Williams’ history of dealing with blood clots. But most importantly, the catsuit mirrored a dream.
“I feel like a warrior in it, like a warrior princess kind of, queen from Wakanda maybe. I always wanted to be a super hero and it’s kind of my way of being a super hero,” she says.
Williams, who has been in the public eye since making her professional tennis debut more than 20 years ago, knew she would always be different. As she has grown, she has embraced those differences.
“I realized that you really have to learn to accept who you are and love who you are. I’m really happy with my body type and I’m really proud of it. Obviously, it works out for me. I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body,” she told the New York Times in a 2015 interview.
Serena has broken the mould and created her own. “It feels like this suit represents all the women who have been through a lot mentally, physically with their body, to come back (after having a baby) and have confidence and to believe in themselves. I definitely feel like it is an opportunity for me to inspire a whole different group of amazing women and kids. It just kind of expands that and I really, really embrace it.”
Serena Williams launched a new active wear brand this summer. Here, Serena wears her Weekend Cropped Sweatshirt.
Her new eponymous fashion brand, Serena, premiered during the French Open. The models come in all colours, shapes and sizes – including Williams.
“Ever since Olympia I was like, ‘OK, I have a daughter, I want her to feel good about herself.’ She is strong already, so I want her to feel beautiful and I want to spread that message through the collection.”
At first it was defiance. Now, as a wife and new mother and wearing the sport’s crown of Greatest Of All Time, Serena has nothing left to prove as an athlete. Now it’s about making a statement.