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. http://www.minasamuels.com