You are us. We are you.
We have watched you grow and dominate a sport like few before you. We also wince at the descriptions you are subjected to.
As you take center court this weekend at the U.S. Open, in pursuit of your outrageous 22nd grand-slam championship, you have proved yourself to be a champion for black women to identify with, and yet your narrative is rarely defined by black women. As with many black women, the perception of you is framed by your appearance, not your skills or your work ethic.
You may be labeled “the greatest female athlete in any sport,” yet your femininity is rarely acknowledged. You are a black woman, in her prime, with the body of a black woman. As a means of minimizing your achievement, there are writers and observers who shame you for your physical power, the very thing that makes you a champion. We understand.
What is it about your body that causes so much controversy? Your arms? Muscular legs? Or is it your imposing rear end? It seems that no one in the press talks about your lung capacity, flexibility or resting heart rate—all equally critical to a high-performance athlete. No one seems to note, either, the mental acuity and stamina that also inform your ability.
Health providers urge us to know our body mass index to understand if we are actually a healthy weight. But BMI is certainly not the best measure of health or fitness. As the New York Times reported, there are myriad body types that can have the same BMI.
Serena, I don’t know how much you weigh or what your BMI is, but I do know you are fit. And I do know that many athletes would be considered obese by their BMI. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black women, for many reasons, are more likely to be obese and overweight than their white counterparts. This has to do with lower income, less access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and, increasingly, the stress of our lived experiences. All of which combine into a toxic brew that makes gaining weight easy and losing weight difficult.
Which of us doesn’t look in the mirror every morning, only to find flaws, big and small, in our physical appearance? We berate ourselves about the food we shouldn’t have eaten and the exercising we didn’t do.
Thank you for letting us know we can stop.
Most of us are trying mightily to live healthy lives. We try to eat right. We follow food labels in an attempt to provide nutritious meals for our families. If I ate according to food labels, I’d gain a pound a week. That’s because those labels are based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet (pdf). The number of calories I need to consume each day to maintain my current weight is 1,540. That’s my basal metabolic rate, or BMR. Most of us don’t know ours.
Recently, in the news, two high-profile stars, Mo’nique and Jill Scott, have shared their journeys to fitness. Over the past two years, neither woman has said that her weight loss was due to her dissatisfaction with her appearance. Rather, Mo’Nique said that her husband loved her enough to tell her he wanted her alive and well for a long time. And Jill Scott said she owed it to her young son to be healthy for him.
We know that physical activity is critically important, as is our calorie consumption. You get plenty of physical activity. The beauty of you is that you train as if you want and deserve to win. But what about us mere mortals, who will probably never play in a grand slam? We have an opportunity to move the needle toward health and fitness. Your commitment and drive to be the GOAT since you were a young girl can work for us.
At the Black Women’s Health Imperative, we’ve figured out how to eat healthy food and get effective, hair-friendly physical activity during our busy days, without going to the gym. It can take as little as seven minutes each day.
“It’s me, and I love me. I’ve learned to love me,” you told ABC’s Good Morning America. “I’ve been like this my whole life, and I embrace me. I love how I look. I am a full woman, and I’m strong and I’m powerful and I’m beautiful at the same time.” Even you admit that there was a journey that got you to this point.
We may never match your elite status, Serena. But we can be stronger and more fit. My tennis game is strictly playground level. But I do have images of your forehand and fist-pumping after a crosscourt winner dancing in my head. On the rare occasion when I hit a winner, I smile and feel powerful. Thank you, Serena, for letting us know it’s about how we feel about ourselves and not about how we look to others.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Linda Goler Blount is president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, a national nonprofit providing programs that support the physical, emotional and financial health of black girls and women of color. She is also a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project.