Serena Williams is almost as famous for the confidence with which she inhabits her body and her show-stopping outfits as she is for her devastating serve. At age 31, she’s the winner of more than 50 tennis titles and the designer of a popular line of clothing sold on the Home Shopping Network. She’s a paragon of powerful beauty. Perhaps her greatest gift to her fans is her openness about how she evolved to love her looks, which contrast the model-thin ideal.
In an article in Harper’s Bazaar, she revealed: “I was 23 when I realized that I wasn’t Venus… I’m super-curvy. I have big boobs and this massive butt. She’s like a model and she fits everything. I was growing up wanting to be her, wanting to look like her, but then one day I couldn’t. Since I don’t look like every other girl, it takes a while to be okay with that—to be different. But different is good.”
In the predominantly white, posh, appearance-obsessed sport of women’s tennis, Serena has always been different. As a child, she trained with her sister Venus in the parks of Compton, coached by a father who planned the sisters’ ascent as tennis champions before they were born. The sisters faced racism more than once; the crowd booed them at the 2001 Indian Wells tournament. Throughout their careers, the media has scrutinized the Williams sisters’ appearances: Their braids, their jewelry, the comparative thickness of their thighs. Serena has responded with mental toughness: By sporting outfits, like the famous Puma “cat-suit,” which subvert the country-club image of tennis; and more importantly, by winning.
A new mentality
Carolyn Becker, PhD, professor of psychology at Trinity College, says, “Serena has put herself forward as someone who responds to the appearance pressure in her sport by keeping her eye on the ball. Athletes come in all shapes and sizes. We need to stop focusing on how female athletes look and instead talk about how they perform.” Dr. Becker explains that women can improve their body images by thinking of themselves as athletes, by focusing what their bodies can do and how to keep themselves strong, instead of how they appear.
One can only speculate about the source of Serena Williams’ fierce self-confidence. But fans can take her wisdom, shared with ESPN The Magazine, to heart: “I want women to know that it’s OK. That you can be whatever size you are and you can be beautiful inside and out. We’re always told what’s beautiful, and what’s not, and that’s not right.”