When the tournament banned the tennis stars bodysuit, it was disrespecting one of the greatest athletes of all time. Heres why
If Wide Awoke were invited to come up with alist of feminist moments of 2018, Serena Williams in ablack catsuit winning her first grand slam match since giving birth would top it. Williams, probably the greatest female tennis player of all time, said the bodysuit she wore on court at this years French Open made her feel like a warrior, as well as helping her cope with the blood clots that threatened her life when she gave birth. It was fun, it was functional, it was fabulous. It made returning to work from maternity leave look like the stuff of superhero movies, which it basically is. Minus thekudos.
The catsuit has been banned from future French Opens. Ibelieve we have sometimes gone too far, said the French Tennis Federation president, Bernard Giudicelli. Serenas outfit this year, for example, would no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place. But how exactly does afull bodysuit go too far? This has nothing to do with respecting the game; in fact it shows deep disrespect to one of its greatestplayers.
What this is really about is the policing of womens bodies and, in particular, the way in which black womens bodies are othered, sexualised and dehumanised. In Williams case, this happens to an appalling degree, whether it is fellow players stuffing towels down their shirts and shorts in amockery of her physique or commentators banging on about her aggressive play. Sometimes the language is coded, such as when Williams race is used as an explanation for her athleticism. Sometimes less so, such as with the American radio host who said of the Williams sisters: Icant even watch them play any more. Ifind it disgusting. Theyre just too muscular. Theyreboys.
Is banning Williams catsuit racist? In and of itself, no. Clothing in sport has always been governed by strict rules. The problem is that the same rules dont apply to everyone, especially if you happen to be ablack woman at the top of your game. As Afua Hirsch writes in her book Brit(ish), comparing the treatment of Maria Sharapova with Venus Williams, a white womans sexuality is cheeky, fun and tasteful; ablack womans offensive, off-putting andindecent.
What makes Serena Williams even more awesome is that she keeps doing what she does in such ahostile and ungracious environment. As she wrote in response to racist comments made by Ilie Nstase about her then unborn child, quoting Maya Angelou: You may shoot me with your words you may try to kill me with your hatefulness, but still like air Iwill rise. Ideally in ablackcatsuit.
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