Tennis star Serena Williams said in an open letter that she is taking a nod from her mother, Oracene Price, on how to raise newborn daughter, Alexis Olympia, to have a positive body image despite negativity from critics.
Williams, who has won 23 Grand Slam titles, has repeatedly been the subject of scrutiny regarding her physique, and even been told that she belongs in men’s sports.
“I think that ever since Serena and Venus [Williams] arrived on the scene, their appearance had always been a topic for criticism,” Yolanda L. Jackson, who served as senior director of athlete marketing and promotions at the Women’s Sports Foundation for more than 20 years, told DiversityInc.
“It started when they wore beads in their hair and continued as they advanced. Serena especially has been targeted because she’s the greatest tennis player of all time. That very fact makes her prime for attacks. The more she achieves, the more people will try to find something wrong with her.”
In 2015, The New York Times was under fire for publishing an article “Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Ambition,” describing Williams as having “large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame,” and highlighting the testimonies of white female tennis players who don’t want to have her physique.
Now that Williams and fiancé Alexis Ohanian welcomed their first child on Sept. 1, she penned an emotional tribute to her mother, who Williams said guided her with class through the harsh criticism of others.
Williams published the letter on Reddit, of which Ohanian is a co-founder, and shared it on her social media channels:
You are one of the strongest women I know. I was looking at my daughter (OMG, yes, I have a daughter) and she has my arms and legs! My exact same strong, muscular, powerful, sensational arms and body. I don’t know how I would react if she has to go through what I’ve gone through since I was a 15 year old and even to this day.
I’ve been called man because I appeared outwardly strong. It has been said that I use drugs (No, I have always had far too much integrity to behave dishonestly in order to gain an advantage). It has been said I don’t belong in Women’s sports — that I belong in Men’s — because I look stronger than many other women do. (No, I just work hard and I was born with this badass body and proud of it).
But mom, I’m not sure how you did not go off on every single reporter, person, announcer and quite frankly, hater, who was too ignorant to understand the power of a Black woman.
I am proud we were able to show them what some women look like. We don’t all look the same. We are curvy, strong, muscular, tall, small, just to name a few, and all the same: we are women and proud!
You are so classy, I only wish I could take your lead. I am trying, though, and God is not done with me yet. I have a LONG way to go, but thank you.
Thank you for being the role model I needed to endure all the hardships that I now regard as challenges — ones that I enjoy. I hope to teach my baby Alexis Olympia the same, and have the same fortitude you have had.
Promise me, mom, that you will continue to help. I’m not sure if I am as meek and strong as you are yet. I hope to get there one day. I love you dearly.
Your youngest of five,
In her new memoir, Sharapova talks about her rivalry with Williams, including emphasizing her physique.
Williams published her letter a week after tennis star Maria Sharapova’s new memoir was released. Sharapova became the first Russian woman to win Wimbledon, went on to hold the No. 1 spot and won four more Grand Slam tournaments. In April, she returned to tennis competition after being suspended for testing positive for a banned substance.
In “Unstoppable: My Life So Far,” Sharapova discusses the rivalry between herself and Williams. She describes her perception of Williams’ physique and being intimidated when they had their first match in 2004 in Miami.
“First of all, her physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV,” writes Sharapova, who at 6’2” is taller than Williams.
“She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong. And tall, really tall. I looked across the net, and, no way to get around it, she was just there! More there than other players, if that makes sense. It’s the whole thing — her presence, her confidence, her personality.”
Regarding her 2004 Wimbledon final win, Sharapova said, “I think Serena hated me for being the skinny kid who beat her, against all odds, at Wimbledon.”
In Williams’ open letter, she specifically made a point of saying that her daughter’s arms and legs are similar to her own, “My exact same strong, muscular, powerful, sensational arms and body.”
And, she referenced how some have said she looks stronger than other women:
“It has been said I don’t belong in Women’s sports — that I belong in men’s — because I look stronger than many other women do. (No, I just work hard and I was born with this badass body and proud of it).”
In an interview last week on ABC’s “The View,” co-host Sunny Hostin asked Sharapova about the flack she is receiving for how she describes Williams in the book.
“You say she had ‘thick legs’ and ‘thick arms,” Hostin said. “What would you say to people who say, ‘Why would you use those terms in describing your opponent?’”
Sharapova responded, “You have to understand, I’m speaking from an image of being a 17-year-old girl and seeing Serena Williams in front of me for the first time. I wasn’t physically developed at all; I did not belong at a Wimbledon final. And so everything about her presence was intimidating to me.”