fashion · feminism · fitness

Let Women Wear What They Want

serena williams' catsuit at the french open
Serena Williams in a kick-ass catsuit at the French Open

The powers-that-be in charge of the French Open, aka French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli, deemed the catsuit Serena Williams wore back in June as a fashion choice “gone too far”; one he considered did not “respect the game and place.”

Oh please, seriously?! After I picked myself up on the floor from the outrage of the headline alone, I read the whole story. Apparently Serena wore the outfit because she wanted compression for her legs, because she’s been having problems with blood clots since she gave birth to her child. Also, because she felt like a superhero in the catsuit, along the lines of a Wakanda warrior (a reference to the movie Black Panther, which, if you haven’t seen it—go see it. It’s feminist film candy about strong, smart women saving the day). The headline reminded me of the kerfuffle around Brandi Chastain’s sports bra in the 1999 Women’s World Cup, when she tore off her shirt to celebrate her incredible goal (a soccer tradition practiced by the men) and was roundly criticized for indecency.

Should players be able to wear whatever they want at the French Open? There are probably outfits that should not appear on the court—one’s birthday suit, perhaps, or an offensive item in the hate-speech category—but a full coverage catsuit? The outfit literally covers more skin and is less revealing that any number of other sports outfits we see regularly in world-class level sports. I won’t stray into my pet peeve about women’s vs. men’s outfits in beach volleyball. Not to mention that Serena has worn far more outrageous (and fabulous!) outfits over the years.

Is Bernard’s outrage because the French tennis boys don’t want strong women to feel like superheroes? Well, I could see why that might be threatening. But it certainly doesn’t disrespect the game. In fact, doesn’t it take the game even more seriously by suggesting that it takes a superhero to play?

Tennis is hardly known for its forward thinking. Wimbledon, for example, insists on using “Mrs.” on its leader board. So it ends up with silliness like, Mrs. Williams, for Serena Williams, who did not take her husband’s name. They call that a “courtesy” tradition. More like discourteous, refusing to address women as individuals separate from their husbands. And remember when the former Indian Wells CEO, Raymond Moore said this, “If I was a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport.”

Coming back from my run this morning, I was struck by the stark contrast between the Serena Williams controversy and this advertisement for a portrait session in a photography studio I passed, because all girls should want to look like Disney princesses.

princess photo offer
Window of a photography studio, offering girls a “princess dress” photo session (and that’s my reflection, in my running not-a-princess outfit

I’ve been annoyed by this poster every time I’ve come back from my runs lately, thinking about all the implicit gender socialization in its message. I wonder how Bernard would feel about Serena in a white tutu? Less threatened, I bet.

I can’t help thinking that when men police women’s bodies in the way of Bernard, that it’s their own lack of decorum and respect that they are protecting themselves against. Don’t let a woman wear a provocative outfit, because then I can’t help but be provoked (into wanting her/hurting her). Again, I don’t actually think that Serena’s outfit was particularly provocative on the scale of sexy-world-class-sports-outfits. Her catsuit was strong and insouciant and utilitarian.

Exactly what a woman wants to wear when she’s competing in her sport. The same reason I love a running skirt.

What do you think?


Mina is a writer, performer, fableog-ist, citizen, traveler, enthusiast and author of Run Like a Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives and other books. She’s working on a new book about the transformational impact of sports on women’s lives.

14 thoughts on “Let Women Wear What They Want

  1. Great post. I despise clothing and body policing of all kinds. This is just ridiculous (especially when you see the suit and its coverage — it literally covers more skin than pretty much anything that has been worn in competitive tennis in the past century!). Serena is often singled out and reprimanded. I hate to call racism and sexism but…there is something about this super strong athletic African American woman with her muscled body and take no shit attitude that makes the tennis powers that be want to scold her and “put her in her place.” They also love to forget that she’s literally the most successful tennis player in the history of the game.

  2. Ugh. This whole thing is outrageous. Serena looks awesome in her suit and if she wants to wear it because it makes her feel great (and on top of that for health reasons, or the other way around, or for whatever other reason), she should be able to do as she bloody well pleases.

  3. I agree. Women’s clothing in general is made for the pleasure of men. Women’s jeans are fitted, whereas men’s are baggy. And it is that way for nearly everything else. I agree that it was about these silly little men feeling threatened by powerful women, far more than it was about her outfit being inappropriate. People need to get with the times–it’s about time we see some equality rather than women being expected to be fairy tale princesses for men to look at, while men get to be powerful–all because one small part of the culture says it should be that way. Most people see how antiquated this is–now it’s time for the rest of them to get a clue.

  4. Awesome post – keep this convo going!!!

    Also – I think the Chastain moment was the 1999 world cup! She was my hero for many years after that <3

  5. To all the comments to date – ditto. A man is daring to demand of a woman fashion over function. Bulls@’!# Its so blatant and ridiculous I can’t even get excited about it. But what I really want more info about is her sports bra and where can I get the same. Betting its customized and built in. But gosh I am so tired of the mono-boob smash and fabrics that supposedly wick but don’t, holding in the sweat and stink.

  6. From a man’s point of view – I agree 125%. Everyone should be allowed to wear whatever they want whenever they want.

    As a man I like to wear women’s leggings and yoga pants for running and doing yoga. They fit better and have better colors than the stuff on the market for men. And when I run outside in my leggings, practically every time I get shouted at by some small minded man who cannot handle my comfort wearing women’s leggings.

    Now if I could only be brave enough to wear skirts outside of my home……because going pantless is wonderful.

    PS I only wear women’s leggings and skirts, not anything else.

  7. As an added comment, although who decided it I am not sure, the same goes for colors -pink and blue. Somewhere along the line someone decided that pink was feminine and blue was male. Why? There are just colors. Now society decrees that if a male wears pink he’s gotta be gay. Again why? People should be allowed to wear whatever type and color they wish. Others and society should not dictate what one can wear!

    1. Don’t even get me started!–I so agree. The color thing starts in-utero, when the store salesperson asks, Is it a boy or a girl? and then sends the prospective parents into the pink or blue aisles!

  8. I agree! Thank you for posting. It’s all a controlling issue for President Bernard Giudicelli. He may have also said his comment to create the uproar it has created for ratings and marketing purposes. Giudicelli knows Serena Williams following is celebrity type. He’s no idiot. Billionaires look for marketing strategies to make more money. He’s just attracting more people to watch the sport.

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