‘Only a Woman Can Be This Strong’: Serena Shuts Down Body-Shamers in Harper’s Bazaar UK

Serena Williams celebrates during the ladies’ singles second-round match against Ashleigh Barty during day 5 of the 2018 French Open at Roland Garros on May 31, 2018, in Paris.
Serena Williams celebrates during the ladies’ singles second-round match against Ashleigh Barty during day 5 of the 2018 French Open at Roland Garros on May 31, 2018, in Paris.
Photo: Clive Brunskill (Getty Images)

“I’m the most girlie out of all [my] sisters,” Serena Williams tells Harper’s Bazaar U.K. in her interview for its June cover story. She says this while getting a pedicure in her favorite color, pink, which she also donned to stun in body-skimming Versace at last month’s royal wedding.


And yet, Williams—along with sister Venus—has been plagued by insults and insinuations about her body and femininity her entire career, most notably in 2014 by Shamil Tarpischev, head of the Russian Tennis Federation, who referred to the sisters as the “Williams brothers,” saying, “It’s scary when you really look at them.”

And then, of course, there was fellow tennis player and perpetual sore loser Maria Sharapova, who wrote in her 2017 memoir, “First of all, her physical presence is much stronger and bigger than you realize watching TV. She has thick arms and thick legs and is so intimidating and strong.”

Obviously, Williams is neither oblivious nor entirely immune to the criticism lobbed her way. So how has the star athlete coped with less-than-kind commentary?

“It was hard for me,” Williams admits to Harper’s Bazaar U.K. “People would say I was born a guy, all because of my arms, or because I’m strong. I was different to Venus: She was thin and tall and beautiful, and I am strong and muscular—and beautiful, but, you know, it was just totally different.”

Harper’s also unearthed a 2004 interview in which Williams purportedly said that one of her goals at age 21 was to reach a size 4, an idea she now finds preposterous: “Oh God, I’ll never be a size 4,” she says. “Why would I want to do that, and be that?”


But she is nevertheless grateful for the perspective, because while she now says of her famed biceps, “This is me, and this is my weapon and machine,” she is also now raising a daughter who she’ll undoubtedly eventually have to guide through body issues of her own:

I love that I said that, because I can understand. I can show Olympia that I struggled, but now I’m happy with who I am and what I am and what I look like ... Olympia was born and she had my arms, and instead of being sad and fearful about what people would say about her, I was just so happy.


In fact, Williams claims that she predicted she was having a girl early on in her pregnancy, even as she powered through the Australian Open—or, perhaps, because of it:

I knew I was having a girl, because when I was playing tennis in the [2017 Australia Open], I didn’t have one day of morning sickness, no symptoms. Australia is really hot, some days can be over 40 degrees [Celsius], which is insane, but she never complained. I said to Alexis, “This is a girl. Only a woman can be this strong.”


And despite her difficult delivery, dangerous postdelivery pulmonary embolism and admitted postpartum depression, Williams tells Harper’s that she definitely sees more pregnancies on deck:

If I wasn’t playing tennis, I’d be pregnant right now—sorry, I’m one of those women. I’ve been injured so many times, and played on it, my body is used to adjusting. ... I told Alexis, I hope it’s another girl. Olympia needs a little sister, and then we can have a boy. I’ve only been around girls my whole life.

Illustration for article titled ‘Only a Woman Can Be This Strong’: Serena Shuts Down Body-Shamers in Harper’s Bazaar UK
Photo: Harper’s Bazaar U.K./Hearst Communications

But babies will have to wait until at least the end of the French Open, which marks Williams’ first grand-slam competition since she won her 23rd grand slam while pregnant. Her prize cup from the Australian Open now hangs on baby Olympia’s bedroom wall. As Williams says, “I couldn’t have done it without her; it’s her win.”

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?


Tool of the Matriarchy

While my physique is nowhere near as majestic as Serena’s, I’m a cis woman who’s unusually tall and strong. It’s been the defining feature of my life, because it freaks men out. Weak men want women to be physically smaller and weaker than them, because (a) it allows them to feel like big strong manly men by comparison and (b) it means the women can be easily controlled by physical force.

A woman like me, who is as tall as the average man and could do some damage in a fight? Makes men uncomfortable. Sooooooo many times I’ve watched men surreptitiously compare our heights and try to stand just a liiiiiitle taller.

A woman like Serena? Who could kick their arse, and their friend’s arse too, with one hand tied behind her back and the other covering a yawn? Fucking terrifying. And she’s black to boot, and proud of it. She doesn’t even pretend she wants to conform to the conventional (thin white) beauty standards. She wears her hair natural. She wears form-fitting clothes, even though she’s not size 0. She has full lips, a wide nose and dark skin and doesn’t seem to care.

A black woman who is successful, wealthy, a legend in her field, too physically powerful for the average man to take down, and who ignores the expectation to strive for thin white beauty standards? Aaaaargh!!!!!!!!11!!11MAGA!!!!!!

There is only one reaction possible for the patriarchy and their enablers. Serena must be forced into their mould, or destroyed. But Serena don’t give a shit about their opinions because they are fleas to her magnificence, and it’s beautiful to watch.