Serena Williams Talks Body Image in Open Letter to Her Mom

“I was looking at my daughter and she has my arms and legs — my exact same strong, muscular, powerful, sensational arms and body,” Williams wrote.

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:

Dear Mom,

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,
Serena

Related Story

Maria Sharapova Calls Serena Williams' 'Thick Arms and Thick Legs' Intimidating

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.”

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12 comments


  • You go, Ms. Williams! Don’t let anyone minimize who you are and what you’ve accomplished. Haters will always hate and they will always find something or someone to hate on. Congratulations on your new baby girl. You Rock!! BLM

    • EMM–Serena and The New Addition show us that it is unnecessary
      to worship The Barbie Doll Image! Beauty lies in strength. :-)

  • What a beautiful letter! Serena is beautiful. We come in all shapes and sizes as she alluded. It is unnecessary to point out or make an issue of her physical stature. She’s strong, healthy and proud of who she is and embraces herself. What some people see as her ‘intimidating’ stature I just see someone who is physically in peak condition and she’s worked hard for it.

    My mom told me the same a long time ago. Ideas of female beauty and what’s considered beautiful leave many of us feeling as if we’re wanting or not meeting some invisible status. We should celebrate our bodies and learn to embrace our own beauty. I’m always unclear where these norms surrounding what makes someone more feminine or beautiful come from. We are all made differently and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It took me a long time to love me and see the beauty in my own form and to understand what my mother was saying but once I got it I got it :). There are so many images out there that tell us if we don’t look a certain way there’s something wrong and if you don’t have a strong sense of self and love yourself then you’ll forever chase some phantom of beauty instead of learning to enjoy all that is beautiful about you. I’m glad she penned that letter to her mom. I thank my mom all the time for the wisdom and advice she passed to me that helps me to love myself and not fall into the trap of trying to fit some mold that takes me away from my own individual uniqueness and beauty. Bravo Ms. Williams!

    • And what a beautiful response yours is too, Deirdre M! Your writing as well as that of Serena Williams’ are so uplifting and inspiring!

  • Thank you for sharing the adorable picture of Serena Williams baby daughter. I hope she grows up to be a beautiful strong woman like her mommy.

  • Haters will always hate.

    Serena could well be the most dominant athlete of our time. And She’s Black and she’s female.

    No wonder people don’t know how to react.

    She is literally in a class be herself……… May she continue to carry herself the way she does.

    • Very true………….HATERS !!!! Especially proud of her not to let others define who she is. Kudos to her mother as well, she raised a fine HUMAN being, and outstanding woman. the world will continue to hate her……….USA especially as she defies what the media portrays people of color. she is showing not only her class but her internal beauty as well.

  • Serena is by any standard a beutifut women. The fact that people are so small has to be critical of her due to body image is nothing less than jealous. She is the greatest tennis player of all time! She should be a model for all young people of where hard work gets
    you.

  • `What a great tribute to her mother. I also dug that subtle dig at Sharapova-(Serena) having too much integrity to behave dishonestly by taking performance enhancing drugs – like some people did. I like that she is already taking the steps to raise a strong black daughter who is going to have a positive self image. Young black women have so many negative views of their bodies that it is refreshing to hear about a strong- in more ways than one- black woman trying to raise a daughter who will have a positive self image. Good luck, Serena and congratulation on the birth of your beautiful little girl. .

  • I wish I looked AS FIT AS Serena! I’d have to work out 10 hours per day, just to get
    one of those famous bicep/tricep groups…:-) Oh well, we welcome to the world
    the Next Little Tennis Player!

  • Beautiful letter, from a beautiful mother, about her beautiful baby. No doubt, the recipient of the letter is a beautiful person too, judging from the character of her daughters.

  • Now, for alllllllllll those years, decades the female athletes of the Soviet Union walked around looking like NFL tight ends and linebackers (some may even remember the comedic dig at that during the Whoppi Goldberg movie “Jumping Jack Flash”), how can a Russian criticize (extremely unfoundedly) Serena?!

    And, I know in MY neighborhod, circle of friends and acquaintances, I’ve yet to hear a single, solitary complaint about Serena’s physique. As a a matter of fact, a few weeks ago, a friend was at the Smithsonian AA Museum and remarked, to the guy standing next to him, how the sculpture of Serena just didnt do her justice (physique) and he said thier wives shook their heads but broke into knowing smiles/grins.

    Shoot me but Anthony Hamilton sang it best:

    Someday I’ll be walking along
    And you’ll step on the scene where I be
    Hopefully you’ll be touched by my charm
    And the words of the song will lead the way
    Bright eyed and things long hair earrings
    Just a few things I like about you

    Sista big bones (big bones)
    Can a brother walk you home (can I walk right beside you)
    Look like a plate of neck bones (look so good, look so good)
    I like to keep your body warm (uh, huh)

    Frankly i admire your style
    How you go into work everyday
    Confident in your walk and your stride
    Got my note open wide, miss thing

    I’d like to take you on a nice date
    Shoot some riddles have some vittles with you
    Make no mistake i’ll be a gentleman
    Take your coat open doors things I’ll do

    Sista big bones (big bones yeah)
    Can a brother walk you home (can I walk right beside you
    Look like a plate of neck bones (oh look so good, look so good)
    I like to keep your body warm (I like to keep your body warm)

    I like to dance with you
    Hold hands and walk with you
    Sing songs and stare at you
    Miss thing, Miss thing

    Sista big bones (big bones)
    Can a brother walk you home (can I walk right beside you)
    Look like a plate of neck bones (oh you look so good, look so good)
    I like to keep your body warm (I’d like to keep your body warm)

    Sista big bones (sistah big bones, yeah)
    Can a brother walk you home (can we please take a long walk baby)
    Look like a plate of neck bones (oh you look so good look so good)
    I like to keep your body warm (said I’d like to, said I’d like to baby)

    Sista big bones (sistah thickness, said I’d like to)
    cCn a brother walk you home (we can take the long way home baby
    Look like a plate of neck bones (oh I want to be right there baby)
    I like to keep your body warm (keeping you warm, baby, yeah)

    Sista big bones (open yo door)
    Can a brother walk you home (I would listen to you, everything you do)
    Look like a plate of neck bones (how was your day)
    I like to keep your body warm (look so good to me, yeah)

    Yeah, yeah!
    Yeah, yeah!

    Yeah, yeah!
    Yeah, yeah, yeah!

    Sista bigness, get down with yo quick, quickness

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