She was born in Compton. I was born in Trinidad, the most southerly island in the Caribbean. She was raised to become a tennis superstar. In high school, my tennis instructor quietly took my parents aside and let them know that their child was ''more of an academic.'' But now that we're both grown women, for the first time I can truly identify with Serena Williams.
In a recent interview with Harper's Bazaar, Serena confessed that, under all that raw physical talent, the body, the unstoppable ambition to be the best in her field, all along she has been dealing with body-image issues. Self-comparison issues that just about any woman in the world could easily recognize.
''I was 23 when I realized that I wasn't Venus. She's totally different,'' she explains. ''I'm super-curvy. I have big boobs and this massive butt. She's tall and she's like a model and she fits everything. I was growing up, wanting to be her, wanting to look like her, and I was always fitting in her clothes, but then one day I couldn't.''
Serena's words speak to a mentality that plagues many women. For many of us, there is a perpetual feeling of not quite measuring up, a constant comparison of our features with someone we'll never be, an ongoing lamentation that you'll never be as (fill in the blank) as (fill in the blank). For me, it was all about comparing myself with my high school friends who were impossibly lissome, long-haired and universally desired by boys. And for Serena, it was all about comparing herself to her svelte sister — a sister who possesses a name that is synonymous with archetypal female beauty: Venus.
But the truth is, it is Serena's body that has made her an icon, and not her sister's. She is the one who is known for being a real powerhouse on the court. It's her ''massive butt'' that has inspired rap lyrics. These days, Serena controls her own appearance, owns her image and celebrates her identity. She doesn't seek to cover herself up to appease the masses — instead of dressing conservatively, Serena struts out in one of her self-designed outfits. She's redefined tennis fashion (sometimes with rather controversial results). One look at this woman, and ''Brick House'' starts playing in your head. She is one of the last women in the world you might expect to have misgivings about her physique.
Serena's Bazaar interview revealed a softer side of this athletic icon — the side that doubts and frets. Because it doesn't matter if you're from Compton or from Trinidad or from anywhere else around the world — if you're a black woman, you've probably had issues with your own booty at some point. If it isn't too big, it's too small. If it isn't too shelf-like, it's too flat. We always allow something to stand between us and self-acceptance.
Like Serena, I've got a big butt. And big boobs. Big everything — size has been an issue in my life ever since the onset of puberty. And like her, I once compared myself with other people and yearned to have a body (or skin, or hair) like theirs. Growing up in Trinidad — land of soca music, barely-there Carnival costumes and ''wining down'' — a butt of a certain appearance and size is admired: high, round and juicy. The kind of butt that late legendary calypsonian Lord Kitchener would have referred to as a ''sugar bum bum.''
Serena was bootylicious before it was fashionable, but finally it seems the world has caught up with her. Rapper Nicki Minaj has been alleged to have had butt implants, actress Countess Vaughn recently gave praise to her surgically enhanced booty on The Mo'Nique Show, and Booty Pop panties are advertised on mainstream television every night. Now you, too, can look like Serena Williams for just $19.95. Even the New York Daily News has pronounced big butts "Summer 2010's hottest trend," citing Kim Kardashian as an ideal example. As if a body part should be subject to the vagaries of fashion.
So what does that mean for young girls growing up with a new generation of curvaceous role models? Hopefully it will mean a new era of appreciation, and not the same old discrimination. Hopefully it will mean a bright future for voluptuous women, where stacked doesn't equal stupid. Here's where a Serena Williams can lead the way. Because unlike her equally stacked peers — J. Lo, Kimmy K or Ice-T's wife Coco — Serena's booty signifies more than just sex. It is also a symbol of her strength.
But how about focusing on another body part? ''I think a smile can make your whole body,'' Serena told Bazaar. ''Models, they look fabulous, but they don't smile and they look so mad. But I like my smile, how it's bright and it's nice. Good thing my braces worked out.'' Because she's so much more than just a big butt and a smile.