Let me begin by saying: I am not an avid tennis fan. But I am a Serena Williams fan. As a young Black girl who grew up playing sports (and, briefly — very briefly — tennis, with my own sister), I was always looking for role models. For many girls just like me, Serena and Venus were symbols, not just of what's possible for women of color in sports, but women of color anywhere. Even as a confessed Serena supporter, however, I was surprised at how powerful I found the new documentary Serena, which airs tonight on Epix at 8 p.m. In it, we're introduced to never-before-seen sides to Williams: how she handles racism in the mostly white sport, the complicated emotions that come with competing against her own sister, and how she finds the strength to push through physically — even when she's terribly ill. We also get to know her love of Disney movies (The Little Mermaid!) and how she unwinds before a big match. (The night before last year's US Open, that meant cozying up at a karaoke bar with my boo Drake. I'll let that one slide, Serena.) But while I rooted for her throughout the entire film, there was one particular moment that brought on the goosebumps and tears. When the director, Ryan White, asks Williams about the constant criticism she receives about her frame (a strong, beautiful body that the media has created a racist, misogynistic, and transphobic conversation around), Williams says, "The prototype of a tennis body is like, someone that's really thin and really tall and really lean. And I have hips, boobs... I have all this extra stuff that I'm carrying around." After explaining that she struggled with that when she was younger, she says she has grown to believe she is beautiful. And then she adds, quietly: "I love my body, and I don't really care about what anyone else says about it."
This, y'all, was an Oprah-level Aha! moment for me — a Black girl whose perception of her own curvy body was shaped early on by her mostly white teammates on the volleyball court, now a Black woman whose self-image is shaped by mostly white colleagues and media imagery. A Black woman who is perpetually trying to lose weight from her thick legs and curvy middle to work toward an imaginary goal of "thin" — then beating herself up when she fails. Throughout Serena, though, I felt myself soaking up some of Williams carefree self-acceptance. Like, maybe I, too, could think about what people might say about my body and offer up an "IDC" shrug. In one scene, she shows her friends what her stomach looks like first thing in the morning. "Before I take a breath, in the morning I swear my stomach looks like this," she says, showing off chiseled abs. And then: "But the second I take a deep breath..." she reveals a round, mid-section pudge, causing her circle to laugh hysterically. In another moment, Williams splits a hole in her pants during an aerial aerobics class, then jokes about it while laughing uncontrollably. "The show must go on." If that had been me in either instance, I would've covered myself up, ashamed of my too-many-tacos tummy and jiggly thighs. But seeing Serena's reaction was like a lightbulb for me: You, and you alone, are in charge of how you react to your body.
And it wasn't just Williams' approach to her body image that inspired me. Seeing her physical dedication to the sport — despite a dislike for working out and critics who say her time in the game is limited because of her age — was motivating. "Who said 34 was old for tennis?" she asks. "Who makes the rules? Shouldn't you make your own rules?" We don't just see her loving her body; we see her appreciating it for its power, its strength, its capabilities. She also treats it, digging into Chinese food after a win and admitting to frequently indulging in Chick-fil-A (my own fast-food Achilles' heel). Of course, one could argue that Williams has the luxury of being able to laugh off her haters and body image insecurities. After all, she is arguably the greatest athlete in the entire world, and she's surrounded by a team of people whose sole jobs are to look after her. But when she talks about her body in this film, there is no trace of smugness, or even her signature confidence (which the media often misconstrues, predictably, as arrogance — but we'll save that problematic racial labeling for another day). Her love for her body is just a fact, plain and simple. So thank you, Serena. I'm headed to the gym now, to push my body to be better and stronger, to appreciate its strength and what it can do — because that's what I want to do, not because I want it to look a certain way for anyone else. When I look in the mirror, I will say, "I love my body, and I don't really care about what anyone else says about it." And then maybe afterward, I'll treat myself to some Chick-fil-A.