When I woke up this morning and saw a photo of Serena Williams’ cover on the August issue of Vanity Fair, my first thought was less of a word and more of an emotion. She is naked, save for a skin-colored thong, a body chain and a diamond cartilage earring. One hand cups her breasts, the other perches on her lower back. Her right knee charges forward, as if she is about to march. Her left tricep curves in a powerful arc from shoulder to elbow. Her chin is tilted up. She is almost seven months pregnant.
After taking in every detail, emotion finally gave way to thoughts, and thoughts gave way to questions. I wanted to write about this cover story for Man Repeller, but I wasn’t sure what approach to even take.
Do I talk about her historic career? With 23 grand-slam wins on the women’s pro tennis tour (her first at just 17 years old) and the most in the open era, Serena is easily considered one of the best, if not THE best athlete of her time. She is certainly the best tennis player in history, having won 72 tournaments on the Women’s Association tour in addition to 23 grand-slam triumphs — and that’s not even counting her 14 doubles finals victories with sister Venus Williams. In total, Serena’s aggregate winning percentage is a whopping 85.76 percent.
Do I talk about her engagement to Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian? They met in Rome on May 12th, 2015 at the Cavalieri hotel where they were both staying by chance. Alexis sat down at a table next to Serena and some friends — a table she happened to be saving for other people on her team who were joining her for breakfast. “This big guy comes and he just plops down at the table next to us, and I’m like, ‘Huh! All these tables and he’s sitting here?,’” Serena told Vanity Fair. She and her friends tried to get him to leave by telling him there was a rat nearby. He didn’t buy it. He did, however, propose to her a year later in the same spot, with a plastic rat perched on the contested table.
Do I talk about the history of celebrity pregnancy reveals? Serena’s Vanity Fair cover is a nod to Demi Moore’s image in 1991, which was also featured on the August cover. Both women were photographed by Annie Leibovitz at around seven months pregnant, glorious, glowing and naked. A naked pregnant woman on the cover of a magazine isn’t shocking in 2017, as it’s we’ve seen it many times over: Cindy Crawford on the cover of W’s June 1999 issue, Britney Spears on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar’s August 2006 issue, Jessica Simpson on the cover of Elle’s April 2012 issue and Blac Chyna on the cover of Paper Mag’s September 2016 issue all come to mind. However, in 1991, Moore’s cover was incredibly controversial. Many supermarkets refused to sell the issue, and those that did covered it up like a porn magazine.
Do I talk about how the media has covered Serena William’s body over the course of her decades in the global spotlight? How she is not ashamed of her body, but she has nevertheless been shamed for her body? “I realized that you really have to learn to accept who you are and love who you are,” Williams told The New York Times in 2015. “I’m really happy with my body type, and I’m really proud of it. Obviously it works out for me. I talk about it all the time, how it was uncomfortable for someone like me to be in my body.” Along her path to pride and acceptance, she’s had to withstand a litany of negative body commentary. In 2001, Sunday Telegraph columnist Otis Gibson disparaged Serena’s physique under the guise of criticizing her US open attire — a black spandex catsuit. In 2003, the satirical website Sportspickle credited Williams’ butt for her Australian Open. In 2006, the Telegraph‘s Matthew Norman voiced his concerns that her breasts might be hindering her mobility. These absurd insults are difficult just to recount. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be on the receiving end of them.
Nevertheless, Williams has triumphed, not only as a tennis player, but as a black woman with a politicized body and personality existing under an international microscope. And so here she is, today, on the cover of Vanity Fair — naked, pregnant, stunningly beautiful. So maybe this cover doesn’t need my think piece. Maybe I just need to look and listen.