First things first: Serena Williams in a thong is a site to behold. It is glorious. Like, a full- moon-in-a-clear-midnight-sky-with-a-green-comet-zipping-through-the-stars type glorious. But, I’m admiring Serena’s glorious for reasons well beyond the obvious.
A primer: Serena, the GOAT of modern sports, recently shot pics for Sports Illustrated’s 2017 Swimsuit Issue. Which of course means she was posed up in a series of swimsuits on the beach. One of those swimsuits was a yellow thong string bikini that highlighted the aforementioned gloriousness.
In a behind-the-scenes video of her SI shoot, Serena made a revelation that, to all-too-many Black women with big booties, wasn’t a revelation at all: the thong bikini was her first.
“I’ve never worn a thong bikini, so for that to be my first shot was like a shot of espresso for me because I had to wake up immediately,” she explained in the video. “The thong is perfect, it really made me feel comfortable. I’m officially a thong girl now!”
Of course, that Serena Williams in a thong story practically broke the internet last week, but there was some negative talk; by the way some responded, you would have thought Serena pimp-slapped Gloria Steinem across the face and publicly tossed a middle finger to feminism. One particular piece on the independent went so far as to scream from its headlines that Serena’s “soft-porn photo shoot” sabotaged her battle for equality on the field, and reinforced the “sexist view that what women look like is more important than their achievements.”
“These kinds of photos are reductive, they’re about how women look rather than about what women like Serena have to say… these photos switch Serena into the traditional passive role for women who are objectified as things to be ogled.”
Spoken like a true white woman who hasn’t a clue what it means for a Black woman to finally fall in love with what the world’s been telling her she should hate practically her entire life. It must be so confusing to see a Black woman, chocolate, curvy, stripped down practically bare, embracing every part of her physical self, sans asking their permission to do so.
For those who insist Serena is objectifying herself: hello, everyone—from sports commentators to the fashion world to tennis spectators to every day men and women—been objectifying that woman. Making fun of her braids and beads when she was a little girl, fresh on the scene. Calling her an ape. A horse. Manrena. Saying she’s too muscular. Speculating she takes steroids. And all of this while she was growing up, trying to figure out how to feel comfortable in her thick legs and wide hips and round booty that didn’t fit into the pop cultural standards that once dictated women be stick thin, fine-haired and white. This is the lot of brown curvy girls. Serena’s wearing that thong bikini sends an entirely different message.
I once spent a day with Serena for an Essence magazine cover story and we spent quite some time comparing notes on how traumatic it was to grow up within that pop cultural lens, and commiserating over how much emotional and mental work it took for us to drop that baggage saddled, literally, on our asses, and embrace ourselves for ourselves, and no one else.
“I am who I am,” she told me. “If you like who I am, nice. If you don’t like what I am, you think I’m weird, that’s your opinion. I think for me, I am who I am… I’m not going to ever be a size two. I don’t care if I don’t eat sugar for the next sixteen years. I’m never going to be a size two or a size four or a size six. This is me. And if you love it, thank you, because this is what a lot of women are like. This is what Black women are like. This is who Serena is. And if you don’t like it, that’s okay, too, because you have to like who you are and I like who I am. Maybe I didn’t when I first started, but I realize I love who I am and I’m proud of it.”
I can attest to the fact that when you have to fight so hard to love you—against every… single… indicator… that… you… should… hate… yourself—it is important work to look in the mirror, really look in the mirror, and take stock of every inch of yourself. To kiss the palms of your hands and touch them to your shoulders and your breasts and your belly and your thighs and your hips and your butt, all the way down to your toes, and say “I love me. I. Love. Me. Finally, I do. And I am not ashamed. I will not hide anymore.”When you have to fight to love you, it's important to look in the mirror and say 'I will not hide.' Click To Tweet
That’s what I did for so long. I hid. Wore baggy jeans and tied flannel shirts and bulky sweaters around my waist and wore boxy clothes that were every bit as unflattering as they were plain. Boyish, even. I subscribed wholeheartedly to the idea that showing one’s body was wrong—a cheap way to get a man’s attention and an assured way to draw the ire of fellow women who wanted to be appreciated not for what their bodies looked like but for what their bodies—and certainly brains—could do.
It wasn’t until I was well into my 40s that I understood that neither the gaze of men nor the rules and restraints set by white women apply to Black women. At least not for this particular Black woman. I am not anybody’s Hottentot or Jezebel, and I am not obligated to be anybody’s nerdy, asexual little girl charged with covering up so as not to distract or attract or set back feminist constructs created without my input or permission. I am, simply, a woman who has fought a lifetime to recognize that, when it comes to my body, the only gaze that counts is my own.
I wear curve-hugging dresses because I think I look good in them. It has nothing to do with you. I wear make-up because I like the way it looks on me. I don’t care what you think about that. I sit in the sun and get Black Black in the summertime because I love being special dark chocolate. It ain’t about you. My locs are a shocking red and I wear them in sweeping, dramatic updos because I like them like that. You’re not a fan? *shoulder shrug*
Last summer, I got really brave and wore a bathing suit on the beach—no t-shirt, no coverall, nothing covering my thick parts, like I’ve worn my entire 48 years on the planet. Just my hi-cut bathing suit and skin. It was a huge, huge deal. The sky didn’t fall. The waters didn’t get still. The birds didn’t stop chirping. Wearing a bathing suit on the beach didn’t set back feminism 50 years or change who I am as a mother, wife, daughter, friend. But it did change who I am as a woman. I posted my feelings on Instagram:
Almost 48 years on this planet, and I can count on one hand, with plenty of fingers left over, how many times I’ve worn a bathing suit on the beach. That is how insecure I feel in them. Being judged, feeling fat and imperfect, like I should take care to cover up alla this lest I offend, has been a lifelong mantra. But today feels… different. Can’t say why or how. Or if I’ll feel this way tomorrow. In this moment, in this right now, I like me. Just as I am. Exactly this way. All of me. *could be the pina colada, though.* #mybeachbody #iAmMyOwnBodyGoal #learningtoloveme
Like Serena in a thong, I felt… comfortable. Beautiful. So happy to be… me. For me and no one else. I trust Serena felt the same way in her yellow string thong bikini. Rock on, Serena. Maybe next time I head for the beach, I’ll find that same bikini and rock the hell out of it, just like you.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.