When a coworker showed up to for a weekly staff meeting last week with the Serena cover of ESPN the Magazine in tow, I was floored—in a good way. My first thought was, “If my body looked like that, I’d be nekkid too!” I was inspired to go to the gym after work to step my game up.
After a three-mile run, I stopped by the magazine shoppe to get my very own copy of Serena in all, and in only, her chocolate glory. Peering at the image up on the wall, I smirked at it proudly. This cover was a woman quite unlike the ladies I’m used to seeing on the cover of men’s magazines. You know the waif-like women with boobage and/or backyards that don’t fit their frames, or worse, the ones so thin that their adult-female (and widely-praised) bodies easily can be mistaken for a pre-pubescent boy’s. This was a Woman—all curves and hips and thighs—being celebrated for being the best at what she does and showcasing the amazing body that helped her get there.
And equally important, she was chocolate. We’ve come a long way, baby—or, er, at least we’ve come back (temporarily) from uplifting “of color” women of unidentified ethnic origin or Black and (insert other here), like some rare or unknown additive makes them sweeter than Sistahs. Here was a glorious chocolate woman selling sexy. And she was so sexy that I—with a body that in no way compares—put an extra, proud strut in my step on my walk to the register. A chocolate, curvy, confident, nude Black woman celebrating her whole self? Hmmph. I happily plunked down my cash for the cover and thought: One small step for Serena; one giant step for Black womankind.
I couldn’t imagine anyone would think otherwise… so you can guess my surprise when the morning after the cover’s debut, I was reading my daily blogroll (everyone was talking about the cover) and found comments calling the Serena cover a “sad day for Black America.” Then I read she was “a whore” and a “ghetto hood rat” because she was “selling sex for money.”
Huh? Was Jennifer Aniston a “whore” or “ghetto” when she sat nude wearing only a tie on the cover of GQ in January? Maybe I missed the brouhaha? I looked it up to be sure. Just as I thought, by and large, she was celebrated for being confident and fabulous at 40. So why is Serena being called awful, ugly names?
I kept on reading (I wish I hadn’t) about how Serena was being exploited by a magazine owned by, operated by and sold to White men. Serena was being compared to Sarah Bartman. Folks were complaining, “one of our young examples to inspire young African-Americans to stand up and respect themselves has just fallen in the trap herself.” People wondered—and it was like you could hear them gasping and clutching their pearls—”What would her father say?!”
All this for posing nude? People might have stroked out if she’d done Playboy.
Sorry, but I can’t jump on this bandwagon.
More than anything, Serena’s picture is “just” sexy to me. I can hardly call it provocative, especially since we’ve seen more of her body on display in candids of her romping around on Miami Beach with her boyfriend, Common. Perhaps I’m not riled up because I’m too used to the brash images of women in say King, Smooth, or XXL’s “Eye Candy,” where women were and are, respectively, photographed with their legs spread eagle or bent over with their ass…ets on prime display.
I won’t even defend the “whore” argument because it’s so ludicrous. But as far as exploited because she’s featured nude on the cover of a mainstream magazine? Um, she’s an athlete on a magazine about athletics, which she has appeared many times before, while clothed. She is one of six people who were featured on six different covers for “The Body Issue” (and there are tons of naked people inside.) If ESPN the Magazine hadn’t featured a Black woman, it would have been a problem because they were overlooking Black women’s bodies. If they had featured a Black woman all covered up, people-we- would complain that ESPN, and by proxy, White America, doesn’t like Black women’s bodies.
I preface this statement with love, but Black women, we have to get over our hang-ups. Our bodies—curved and uncurved alike—are beautiful, not “ghetto” just because they so often don’t mirror the idea of images of beauty we’re bombarded with. We’re not “whores” because we take our clothes off. And, too, we deserve the right to enjoy ourselves in all are unstitched glory whether it’s on the cover of a magazine, prancing around our bedrooms in front of floor-length mirrors dancing to Prince, or doing “it” with the lights on while on top. And if we are grown, we should do all of that without ever wondering, “what would my Daddy, or anyone else who is as grown as you, say?” As an adult you don’t have to be a “good girl;” your only obligation is to be a great woman, however YOU define it.
Too often it seems like everything—EVERYTHING—Black people do is filtered through a limited, overly conservative lens that never allows us—or anyone we admire—to just be without being overly judged. Serena Williams isn’t letting anybody down (she’s an athlete. She can only let you down by showing up unprepared or not bringing her A-game) or even degrading the image of Black women worldwide by posing in the cocoa-buttered buff. But we are degrading her image—and our own—by placing hundreds of years of historical and cultural context on a confident choice to celebrate her figure.
The naysayers about this image are being hyper-sensitive, maybe even paranoid. Every flu shot isn’t The Tuskegee Experiment and every image of a curvaceous Black woman isn’t Sarah Bartman, a “whore” or “ghetto.” Every time a Black woman is showcased, it isn’t exploitation. Sometimes—like on this cover—a Black woman is actually being celebrated.
Demetria L. Lucas is an ESSENCE magazine associate editor.