Not Your Belly, Not Your BusinessOn Serena Williams, Reproduction, and Athleticism

Last week, tennis star Serena Williams announced that she and her fiance, Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, are expecting their first child together. According to a now-deleted Snapchat photo showing Williams in a gorgeous yellow bathing suit with a small baby bump, the greatest athlete of all time is just about 20 weeks along. While this should have been a moment for the Internet to rejoice in chorus, much of the dialogue resembled a back and forth volleying match between avid Williams fans and media outlets, all reeling over the news. While Williams surely deserves the privacy and humanity of experiencing pregnancy on her own terms, it’s important that conversations about pregnancy as a medical condition, reproductive autonomy, and the varying levels of complications that pregnant people face remain on the table.

Initially, when fans saw “20 weeks” at the bottom of Williams’s photo, they began counting backwards to get an idea of when she would have known she was with child. Soon, it was deduced that in January 2017—when Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam at the Australian Open—she would have been just about eight weeks along. The news media took this fact and ran with it.

The New York Times published an article chock-full of spokespeople and friends of friends who were willing to comment on Williams’s good news. (It must be mentioned that this is the same publication that produced a misogynoiristic article on her in 2015, essentially shaming Williams for her naturally athletic physique). New Scientist produced an article questioning whether Williams somehow was more athletic because of her pregnancy (an idea they basically debunked in the article itself). USA Today even called in an obstetrician to put everyone at ease about Williams’s pregnancy (though, it doesn’t sound like she is the star’s actual doctor). They have been calling Williams “superhuman” for a while.

Having nothing else to talk about except Williams herself, these publications became further fixated on her body, casting her as some sort of superhuman being who magically transcended the mortal facets of pregnancy to win the Australian Open. Not only that, they furthered their usual agenda of casting Williams as somehow outside of the “normal” boundaries of womanhood, thereby handling her pregnancy in ways that are unknown to many other pregnant people.

Let us never forget when the Los Angeles Times compared Williams to a horse. Or, last year when Indian Wells Tennis Garden CEO commented that “lady players” like Williams should get down on their knees every night and “thank God” for their male counterparts. Or even, just days after Williams announced her pregnancy, when Romanian Captain Ilie Nastase reportedly said of Williams’s unborn child, “Let’s see what color it has. Chocolate with milk?”

Sadly, the list goes on. And Williams has been enduring this abuse since her career began.

To be clear: The ongoing obsession with Serena’s body is certainly sexist and racist. It is rooted in anti-Blackness and the same logic that animated the invasion of Henrietta Lacks’s body in 1951 and subsequent commodification of her cells without her permission or that of her family. Lacks’s experience with Johns Hopkins medical practitioners is at the center of Rebecca Skloot’s New York Times bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and the subsequent HBO film of the same name featuring Oprah Winfrey, which aired on April 22.

These sorts of invasions of Black women’s privacy are often supported by societal notions of Black women’s inability to feel pain in the same ways non-Black people do, which assert that Black women experience womanhood differently than other women. The unwanted involvement of non-Black people and state-based institutions in the reproductive choices of Black women has a long and troubled rap sheet. For example, some women were even forcibly sterilized.

I am entirely aware that the pushback many have had to the incessant concerns and questions about Williams’s body are in response to these historical roots.

Conversely, there were many people who want to become pregnant one day, namely Black women, who saw Williams’s news as hope. Williams is 35 years old, which is technically considered high-risk, especially when considering that this is her first child. She is part of a growing group of celebrity women, which includes the likes of Beyoncé and Janet Jackson, who are having children later in life. These women are iconic professionals who are now inspiring many others to hold out for a family if that is something they desire.

Even, Beyoncé was subjected to this sort of pregnancy interrogation following her iconic Grammy performance in February.

Though, since not only women can and do experience pregnancy, we must also push back against the knee-jerk reaction to flatten this conversation as having only to do with Black women.

Those supporters—many who have not experienced pregnancy themselves—who thought it most appropriate to knight Williams as somehow above the common symptoms of pregnancy, such as nausea, vomiting, fainting, migraines, fatigue, and the like, were not actually helping the situation.

On one hand, they were literally fighting those who saw Williams—and her unborn child—as superhuman by essentially arguing that she is. In an attempt to humanize Williams’s impressive feats of athleticism, they relied on the same logic of superhumanness to explain her perceived abilities both on and off the tennis court. Rather than focusing on the pregnancy itself, they reaffirmed the obsession with Williams’s body, never considering that this, too, is problematic.

On the other hand, they were, in many cases, shaming those pregnant people who can barely stand up during the early stages of pregnancy by normalizing their perceptions of the star’s superpowered pregnancy (which are not based on facts, because none of us truly knows Williams’s experiences with her body).

I was one of those people.

I have been pregnant four times. The first ended in miscarriage at six weeks. It was a painful process that I didn’t understand and medical professionals couldn’t have cared less about. My second pregnancy was riddled with complications, including me contracting E. coli meningitis, nearly losing my unborn child and my life. My third and fourth pregnancies were much easier overall, but still resulted in extreme fatigue, extensive weight loss, fainting spells, debilitating nausea, migraines, back and body pains, and bedrest.

Suffice it to say, I was astounded—and still am—by what Williams was able to accomplish at two months pregnant. Not because I am sexist or anti-Black, but because I have never had such an experience.

I know every pregnancy is different. I also know every pregnant person is different—especially for someone with the athletic history of Williams. But, none of that changes the fact that pregnancy is a medical condition, one that results in death for far too many pregnant people in the United States. And the number is climbing.

By dismissing conversations about Williams’s ability to compete in a Grand Slam in her first trimester of pregnancy as having only to do with women, many of her supporters have foreclosed on broader discussions about the ways we essentialize pregnancy as a woman’s condition. Unfortunately, that is what many people who do not have uteruses do. Take, for example, Vice President Mike Pence and the room full of 30 white Republican men who thought it their place to decide the future of reproductive rights in the United States. Likewise, this line of thinking too often recasts reproductive health services, such as free access to abortion and birth control, as having only to do with women’s health. This logic is harmful to trans and gender nonconforming folks who also need access to reproductive health services, including pregnancy-related medical care.

It is possible to talk about Williams’s pregnancy and the conditions that come along with it without talking about Williams personally. It is also possible and important to say nothing about her at all. I imagine that Williams isn’t trying to become the next poster child for pregnancy. We should respect that.

In fact, we need to have more conversations about topics like menstruation, pregnancy, and uterine and cervical health precisely so that pregnant people are not constantly ogled and prodded for information when they just want to live.

Rather than obsessing over Williams’s body or defending her on the basis of womanhood alone, we should be interrogating the ways our language supports gender binaries and keeps important conversations about pregnant bodies hidden from public dialogue. These types of reactions only perpetuate a general dearth of knowledge on the issues facing pregnant people in the United States.

We can (and should) do better.

by Jenn Jackson
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Jenn M. Jackson is a doctoral candidate in American Politics with a focus on race, gender, and class. She is the co-host of That Black Couple, an accidentally funny podcast about the realities of Blackness and adult life. Jenn is also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Water Cooler Convos, a platform where Black millennials talk. She muses on all things feminist on Twitter: @JennMJack. Or, you can read more at her website

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