Simone Biles is known for her body: its power, its capabilities and the heights to which it propels her. I am completely mesmerized by it. I’m not sure if it’s the beauty of her black body prancing; her short, muscular legs seemingly defying physics; or the ease with which she does it all—with a confident, beaming smile and glitter-lined eyes.
Biles’ Olympic gold wins weren’t just for the official U.S. record books; they were for black women around the globe. Her wins showed that a black female athlete can be strong, feminine and sexy—all on the biggest international stage.
As with former Olympic gold medalist gymnasts, her routines consisted of complex tumbling sequences, but Biles did them better, higher. Heck, she even invented her signature move, the Biles, which no one else in the world dares try to execute. It’s a double layout half out that can’t be described; it must be seen.
But unlike other gymnasts, she rolled during her floor exercise—as in body-rolled. She rolled her chest, torso and hips slowly and powerfully, like the waves of the Atlantic Ocean off Rio de Janeiro’s coast. She did this not once, or twice, but five times. (She even sprinkled in a couple of chest shimmies for added spice.)
While commentators speculated that she could easily win five gold medals, Biles stayed mum about her chances to make history, and chose instead to let her body do all the talking. With every flip and perfect landing, Biles was saying, “Yep, I did that!” And for every body roll and chest shimmy, she was declaring, "Yes, hunty! Look at this!” Her routines were the celebration of the power of the human body, this black female human body, in its fullness.
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And for this, every American celebrated. Even other countries celebrated. ’Cause when you see excellence, you applaud. And when you see black beauty doing its thang, you can’t help but stand and applaud. So when Biles did her thang and captured four gold medals and one bronze medal in Rio, fans worldwide praised her with a standing ovation.
But not all black female athletes have been celebrated so unanimously. Serena Williams (and her sister Venus) have been scrutinized about their bodies, clothing and sexuality for most of their careers. It was just two years ago when Russian Tennis Federation President Shamil Tarpischev derisively referred to the two as the “Williams brothers” because of their muscular physiques.
In the book Black Sexual Politics, author Patricia Hills Collins argues that women who are athletes are often stereotyped as being “masculine” and “lesbians,” with black women, in particular, being viewed as being more masculine than other women. Collins writes, “The same qualities that are uncritically celebrated for black male athletes can become stumbling blocks for their black female counterparts.” In other words, black women who are too strong physically are considered masculine, and denied their inherent femininity and sexuality.
To all of this, Serena Williams said, “Hell, no!” and posed nude for ESPN the Magazine's Body issue in 2009. Some critics felt that a female athlete posing nude would undermine the hard-earned accomplishments of professional female athletes, while others said that her decision only contributed to the stereotypical image of the hypersexualized black woman. Another group of critics argued that the photos should have been taken for a magazine that catered more to women (if the shoot was, in fact, about women’s empowerment), while others questioned whether Williams was even a woman (insert face palm).
However, the Williams sisters have never catered to critics. Venus Williams posed nude for ESPN the Magazine’s Body issue five years later, choosing to follow in the footsteps of her “little” sister. And in April 2016, Serena Williams’ “how to twerk” video went viral, setting off another wave of controversy about whether a black female athlete should promote “sexual” dance moves. She volleyed back with a “Hell, yeah!” by twerking with Queen Bey, and then creating an official twerking tutorial.
Yes, one could argue that leotards are in vogue for gymnasts, and not for tennis players, and that dancing and prancing are part and parcel of floor routines, and not tennis matches, but the question remains: Why aren’t we having similar conversations about male athletes? Why is no one arguing about whether Ashton Eaton’s shorts were too tight, or whether Michael Phelps revealed too much skin on his cover for Sports Illustrated?
The more images we see—whether of Simone Biles’ muscle-ladened physique, Gabby Douglas’ sweat-filled edges, or the indomitable thighs of track-and-field Olympians Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali and Kristi Castlin—the more the beauty and power of the black female form will become normalized.
And maybe more women will be inspired to flip, body-roll or twerk—not because of who might be (or might not be) watching—but because it’s a reflection of who they are. Maybe another reason to celebrate Rio is because it crowned Simone Biles the Queen of Gymnastics 2016 and the reigning #CarefreeBlackGirl.