Serena Williams made her much-anticipated return to the tennis court in December, just three months after giving birth to her first child, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. Williams has built her career on winning. So, when she did not win her comeback match against Jelena Ostapenko, headlines proclaimed, “Serena Finds It ‘Super Hard’ As She Makes Losing Court Comeback” and “Serena Williams loses in comeback match after pregnancy.” The media maligned Williams because she failed to follow the expected narrative: Elite female athletes are supposed to give birth and return to competition without batting an eye. But that expectation should’ve never been placed on her to begin with.
Since WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes made headlines for having a baby in the late ’90s, female athletes who take time off to have kids have been placed in an impossible position. The media vacillates between two extremes: Either the woman (I’m using “women” to describe these athletes because they’re cisgender women, but they’re not the only people who carry babies or give birth) who returns to sports so soon after childbirth is eschewing the responsible (and “natural”) role of motherhood, or she’s moving too slowly, and it’s unclear if she’ll even return to the sport or her athletic form.
This fixation on the bodies of women athletes doesn’t begin at pregnancy. Female athletes are more likely to be photographed in provocative positions that undermine their athletic ability. The women who receive endorsements and rise to the top of their field are often rewarded for being athletic and conventionally attractive. Making women sex symbols first and athletes second sends the message that their value comes not just from their athletic feats, but from their ability to conform to mainstream beauty standards. (It’s also worth noting that Williams’s has been subjected to racist, sexist, and transphobic insults because of her muscular figure.)
Sheryl Swoopes pregnant on the Spring 1997 cover of Sports Illustrated Women (Photo credit: Autographs for Sale)
For childbearing athletes, many patriarchal constructs collide, including the expectation that women should be caretakers; the obsession with the bodies of women athletes; and the fatphobic fixation on watching celebrities get their “pre-baby bodies back.” All of these competing narratives project unachievable standards onto premiere athletes. We expect their bodies to bend to their will. For instance, Williams won the Australian Open while she was eight weeks pregnant, and Olympic runner Alysia Montano has competed when she was five months pregnant and eight months pregnant, respectively.
Paula Radcliffe won the New York Marathon in 2007 after having her daughter and returning to training just 12 days postpartum. In 2009, golfer Catriona Matthews won the British Open just 10 weeks after having her second child. In July 2014, Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill, gave birth to her son, Reggie. She then began training, so she could compete in the 2016 summer Olympics and become the second female athlete to give birth and retain her title in the same Olympic cycle. “I was an athlete before I had Reggie, so my body did get back quicker than your average woman’s,” she told The Telegraph in August 2016. …My body is my job, so I had to get back.” Yet, she also acknowledged that she “could never have imagined how hard it would be” to get back into training shape after giving birth.
To be fair, male athletes are also chastised for being present for their pregnant girlfriends and wives: In 2014, sports radio host Mike Francesa said New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy should “hire a nurse” instead of taking off for paternity leave. Former NFL linebacker-turned-Fox-Sports-reporter Brendon Ayanbadejo has said that the Miami Dolphins traded him because he missed a practice following the birth of his son, and in 2012, Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio chastised Chicago Bears player Charles Tillman for saying he would miss a game if his wife went into labor on a game day.
Paula Radcliffe with her daughter after winning the 2007 New York City marathon (Photo credit: New York City Marathon)
Yet, women are far more affected by distorted expectations around childbirth. The pressure for all celebrities to return to pre-baby shape is intense, even doubly so for athletes who rely on their bodies to make a living. Williams caused a frenzy after posting photos of herself wearing jean shorts on Instagram just two weeks after giving birth. Olympic volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings got back into playing shape just eight weeks after giving birth to her daughter in 2013, prompting “how she got her body back” headlines. (These congratulatory stories don’t mention that her intense postpartum training led to an abdominal strain).
It can take months to fully recover from giving birth. In Williams’ case, recovery was even more complicated due to postpartum blood clots and hemorrhaging, as well as a C-section recovery that left her unable to get out of bed for six weeks. And while some athletes may be able to push themselves to begin training within weeks of having a child, the question remains about whether they should and if the pressure to give birth and return to the game contributes to their rush to get back in athletic shape.
“I’ve seen people who have rushed back and ended up chronically injured and never returned to being an elite athlete again because they’ve broken themselves,” Mark Buckingham, a physiotherapist with the Northamptonshire, England-based practice Witty, Pask & Buckingham, told VICE Sports.
Serena Williams on the August 2017 cover of Vanity Fair (Photo credit: serenawilliams/Instagram)
And it is not just professional athletes who run the risk of hurting themselves by trying to come back too soon; when the public sees their favorite athlete return to working out or training less than two weeks after giving birth, it sends the message that they should too. How many people—mostly women—are irreparably harming their bodies by trying to push themselves beyond their limit?
We place athletes on pedestals that force them to meet seemingly inhuman expectations. We praised Williams for being a pregnant goddess on the cover of Vanity Fair and fitting back into her booty shorts within weeks of giving birth, but then questioned if it’s “unrealistic to try to return so soon after giving birth?” when she failed to net a quick comeback. This dismissive approach strips female athletes of their humanity and reduces them to their athletic achievements. There’s hope though: Serena Williams might be the athlete who ushers in a more nuanced narrative for elite athletes who are figuring out their careers after having babies.
In her post-match press conference, Williams was honest and vulnerable in a way we don’t allow our athletes to be. “I have plenty of comebacks, from injuries, from surgeries, but I’ve never had a comeback after actually giving birth to a human being,” she said. “So, in my eyes, I feel it was a wonderful, wonderful match for me.” Williams has also decided to sit out from this year’s Australian Open so she can physically prepare for competition. While openness is often viewed as weakness, Williams is allowing herself to be fully human—something we should grant all athletes who give birth.