Serena Williams’ Catsuit and #BlackMommaMagic: Speaking Back through Fashion

Serena Williams in black catsuit

When I saw the headline about a ban on Serena Williams’ catsuit, I did a double take: was someone doing a flashback piece? In fact, no. This was current news looping back on an old theme: Serena and the catsuit. Back at the 2002 U.S. Open, Serena Williams wore a tight-fitting black outfit to which she and the press referred as a catsuit. After this incident, Jaime Schultz analyzed the media coverage of Williams’ catsuit to demonstrate how the media relied upon racist stereotypes in discussing her outfit and physique. In 2018, we once again find the tennis world stirring up a fuss over a catsuit, with similarly troubling implications. Is this history repeating, or are there some important differences to note between the 2002 and 2018 Great Catsuit Moment?

Both times, Serena is exceptional, powerful, and a brilliant embodiment of #BlackGirlMagic. But in 2018, Serena is also #BlackMommaMagic. After having a child and undergoing life-threatening complications in the context of a medical system where Black women are more likely to die in childbirth than any other demographic, Serena asserts her presence, ready to win the French Open. While I’m never one to say that any mother ever needs to get their pre-baby body back (that’s some mysogynistic bullshit), I will say this: damn, she looks good.

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to appreciate Serena’s accomplishments. Instead, we see the consistent message from the tennis establishment that Williams’ body does not belong. In 2002, it was because her body was too powerful, too large, too shapely…too black. In 2018, the story is the same, but with a vicious twist. Now, she is wearing the catsuit not just because it makes her look like a badass Wakanda warrior, but also because the outfit is a compression suit designed to help prevent her from getting life-threatening blood clots, a lingering risk from a postpartum hematoma.

Officials running the French Open demonstrated no appreciation for her sartorial acumen, nor did they exhibit any compassion for her medical condition. Instead, shortly after her winning performance, they changed their dress code to explicitly forbid attire similar to Williams’ catsuit. In his announcement, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli said, “One must respect the game and the place.” This signifies a devaluation not just of black womanhood, but more specifically black motherhood. By denying her the ability to wear clothing designed to preserve her health, the French Open aligns itself with the many other institutions that have actively worked against the reproductive health of Black women.

Ever since they picked up a racket, establishment tennis has been telling the Williams sisters that they do not belong. Throughout, Serena and Venus have found creative and powerful ways to demand their inclusion, most often through their skills with a racket, but also through fashion. Rather than acquiescing to the dominant aesthetics of tennis, the sisters have asserted their own fashion sensibility on and off the court. From beaded braids in their early years to skin-colored shorts, Venus and Serena adopt a style that challenges the elite country club look. An entire book could be written analyzing how the Williams sisters have used fashion to refute and reappropriate the racism and sexism thrown at them in every match. Their wardrobes actively make space for their Black bodies in a sport that continually seeks to shut them out. Their choice of dress speaks in ways that their words cannot. The Williams sisters brilliantly translate their love of fashion (Serena even has her own fashion line) into a mode of expression to say the things that world will not let them speak out loud.

Why a “Catsuit”?

Calling a garment a catsuit evokes the slinky, sexy, dark, and agile. It can elicit desire, but without promising to fulfill. The woman in the catsuit is no demure maiden. No, the catsuit-clad body is more akin to the dominatrix. She knows what she wants, controls the situation, and will not put up with any of your shit. She is in charge.

And so is Serena, particularly on the court. She will play for your amusement and her pleasure, but her satisfaction comes first. She takes the rules of the game and stretches and bends them until they can accommodate her form and power. She plays the game in ways that undo her opponents. Her mode of play and dress do more than just win games. They also challenge the white supremacy of tennis.

Yet the catsuit also risks reinforcing troubling tropes about black womanhood. Too often, black women are imagined as hyper-sexualized, animalistic beings. This rhetoric has justified the terrible systematic violence done to Black women and Black families. It has justified rape, abuse, the separation of children from their families, forced sterilization, and the denial of meaningful systems of support that make life livable.

British caricature of Saartje Baartman, ca. 1810

This stereotype finds embodied form in the historical figure of Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman who was paraded around Europe in 1810 so that white audiences could gawk at her physical form, particularly her protruding buttocks. Her body became a site where social meanings of racial difference were made. Her body became a symbol for the overly sexual and excessive ’nature’ of black femininity, which served as a counterpoint to the white standard of beauty.

The catsuit, in the hands of mass media, risks reinforcing these kinds of racist historical narratives. In her article, Schultz illustrates how news outlets similarly framed Williams’ backside as deviant and excessive. A piece by Jenée Desmond-Harris in Vox shows that the intersectional sexism/racism thrown at Williams has been relentless throughout her career, and often targets her body.

But at the same time, Serena embraces the catsuit in a way that reaches back in time and affirms the humanity of the real, flesh-and-blood Baartman. She dons the catsuit to remake her body into a site of power and agency, and through it, other Black female bodies who have been told they are too much and not deserving of full humanity. This was true in 2002, and is even more so in 2018.

A Superhero for Black Mothers

The black bodysuit that Serena wore in the 2018 French Open contributed to the health of both her body and her soul. While its compression properties encouraged blood circulation, its appearance made her feel like a Black Panther superhero. She wore in in honor of “all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy.” As a mother who has experienced the recovery from a routine c-section birth—let alone a life-threatening one—I feel the supernatural power that she is drawing on. And mothers, particularly Black mothers, need more superheroes, because our medical system isn’t saving them.

The mortality rate for U.S. Black women in pregnancy and giving birth is three times as high as white women. Evidence indicates that Black women’s pain is not taken seriously and warning signs of serious issues are routinely overlooked, leading serious conditions to go undiagnosed. Serena herself had to advocate strongly for her medical team to do the tests necessary to find blood clots in her legs. And yet medical neglect may be but one tendril of the more deeply rooted problem responsible for this and other health disparities: systemic racism. Research studies show evidence that higher rates of infant and maternal death may be due to the endemic stress of being a Black woman in the US living under conditions of societal racism. Compelling and heart-wrenching pieces in the New York Times and NPR describe the personal impacts and the research that compellingly demonstrates why racism is a public health issue.

This background is what gives the catsuit ban a particularly biting edge. It is no longer just a negation of black womanhood, but now it is also a negation of the black woman’s right to heal herself from the physiological damage wrought by a racist society. It is a a denial of black motherhood, and by extension, the black family.

The Final Challenge

The epilogue to the story is the U.S. Open, where Serena once again lets her fashion choice do the talking. While she undertook the emotional labor of gracefully accepting the ban, the black tutu she wore with compression fishnet stockings seemed to express what she was really feeling. Sadly, this celebratory look was soon overshadowed when she suffered a series of penalties in the closing round in what has widely been decried as a flagrant display of sexism and the double standard of who’s allowed to exhibit rage. What some media outlets referred to as a “meltdown,” was an exemplar of what Brittney Cooper calls eloquent rage, as pointed out by The Cut’s Rebecca Traister. This framing beautifully subverts the damaging stereotype of the angry black woman that other media outlets latched onto, most disturbingly represented in a racist caricature by Mark Knight. Gender studies scholar Rebecca Wanzo and historian Brooke Newman carefully lay out precisely how Knight’s cartoon draws upon a visual history of racism.

Serena’s treatment on the court and mass media’s representation of her reaction frustratingly demonstrates the danger of verbal expression for this tennis superstar. When she opens her mouth to express the rage she so rightly feels, she is struck down. And yet, even in such a moment, she once again undertakes the immense emotional labor often required of Black women. In her own moment of temporary defeat in a sexist & racist sporting institution, she holds up the victory of her opponent, another woman of color, Naomi Osaka. Because she knows who the real enemy is, and it is not the woman on the other side of the net.

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