Serena and Venus Williams Battle More Body-Shaming

7899814802_dd1b5b7de7_zIt seems like Serena and Venus Williams just can’t catch a break. Though both have been ranked No. 1 in women’s singles tennis, taken home armfuls of trophies and been credited with ushering in a new era of American women’s athleticism, nasty comments about their bodies—and gender performance—continue to plague their careers.

The most recent gaffe comes courtesy of Russian Tennis Federation President Shamil Tarpischev, who referred to Serena and Venus as “the Williams brothers” on a talk show. But unlike other high-profile instances of body-shaming, this one was met with international outcry.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) swiftly banned Tarpischev from any tour involvement with the WTA for a year, and WTA Tour chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster said that Tarpischev’s comments were “insulting, demeaning and have absolutely no place in our sport.” Proving that they mean business, the WTA also fined him the maximum of $25,000 allowed under tour rules and said that he owes the Williams sisters an apology. (Tarpischev, for his part, issued a pseudo apology).

Because their bodies fall outside of Eurocentric and thin-centric beauty ideals perpetuated by Western cultures, they are considered fair game for jokes and taunting. I would go so far as to say that some people, such as Tarpischev, view the Williams sisters’ bodies, especially Serena’s, as invitations for harassment.

The type of body-shaming in Tarpishchev’s comment, while subtle, comes gift-wrapped in a triad from hell: misogyny, racism and transphobia. By referring to the Williams sisters as “brothers,” Tarpishchev resurrected the tired notion that black women are unattractive because we are more “masculine” than other women and are “indistinguishable” from men. These types of jokes are used to say that black women aren’t “real women,” that there’s something just not right about our bodies, not feminine enough, too muscular, too “scary” and that we’re worth less because of it. Look at radio host Sid Rosenberg, who called Serena an “animal.” Imagine how many black women are internalizing these messages. There’s little difference between Tarpishchev’s words and the transphobic slur the late Joan Rivers used to slam First Lady Michelle Obama, calling her a “tr*nny.” Both use black women and trans people as the butt of a body-policing joke.

As world-class athletes, it obviously makes sense that the Williams sisters have some muscles. But this is lost on those who, by bullying the Williams sisters over their bodies, simultaneously attack their psyches and their livelihoods. Think of all the girls who could become top athletes but quit sports because they’re afraid of having too many defined muscles and being made fun of or called unattractive.

We live in a society that pretends women and men are treated equitably, but drags individuals across the coals for not adhering to gender norms. Women can be world-class athletes, but their bodies are still hyper-visible, shamed, sexualized, criticized and exploited to foster gossip about their love lives and sexualities. “Sex sells,” we’re told.

However, the Williams sisters have stood strong and continued to succeed. People like the remorseless Tarpishchev haven’t stopped Serena Williams from earning over $60,000,000 in prize money, the most earned by any woman player, or holding 87 titles. They haven’t stopped Venus Williams from becoming the first black woman to become World No. 1 during the Open Era in 2002 or successfully advocating for gender-equal tournament prize money (seriously Wimbledon, what’s up with that?). Plenty of people celebrate the Williams sisters and it’s incredibly positive to see the WTA and numerous advocates publicly take a stance against the verbal abuse of two black women. It doesn’t happen enough.

Hopefully the WTA’s sanctioning of Shamil Tarpischev will send a message that bigoted critics should pack up their bags and move along. Neither the Williams sisters nor their bodies are something to laugh it.

READ MORE: Serena Williams, The Hottentot Venus and Accidental Racism

Photo courtesy of Flickr user labbradolci licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

Corinne Gaston headshot


Corinne Gaston is an editorial intern at Ms. Follow her on Twitter @elysehamsa or go to her personal blog.



  1. Nancy Watson says:

    These women are stunning. I don’t understand. They are strong, sexy, intelligent, a force to be reckoned with on the court and off and I admire them so much. Strong in body and spirit. On top of all of that they ARE really beautiful. I am so sick of this shit.

    • How dare anyone say such hurtful, and mean things about the Williams sisters.They are remarkable Ladies, and, they dont deserve being talked about from such ignorant people. They jealous that these Women of color, went into tennis, and started breaking all kinds of records. Serena, and Venus, you hold your head up high, do what you do, kick asses, and never fill ashamed of who you are, are where you came from. I am so, so, Proud of both of you, you represent the U.S.A , and I Love You, for YOU.

    • I totally agree with you. I don’t think anyone should be bullied, but I really can’t understand why someone would choose to bully Venus and Serena. Their bodies are strong and beautiful, their talent is amazing. They are role models, and behave like it – shouldn’t they be praised for that?

    • Lisa Hollenbeck says:


  2. Excellent article.

  3. susan stauffer says:

    The Russian just sounds REALLY STUPID to me. “A joke”? is that some kind of a joke? or a comment on the Russian sense of humor It STILL sounds stupid. Give me British humor any day. He deserves to be totally ignored.

  4. Don’t let the HATERS get you down
    Ps I love those MUSCLES you’ll encourage me

  5. The stupidity of others continues to baffle me. Just because one desires their mate to be small is stature, small as a child or flat as a boy, not all desire that type. I have a muscular body type, my husband loves me as I am. Not everyone desire to be as big as a twig. Mr. Whatever his name us needs to take his head out of his … and keep his negatively to himself and his small minded friends. The William sisters are AWESOME!

  6. Tara Motley says:

    Its tough being the best in what you do no matter shape, size or color. At the end of the day, those girls are champions which has been proven time and time again.

    Nobody likes losers and/or the degrading comments. 🙂
    As at the end of the day, the are still leading champions.

    His comments summed up in three words….CHUMP
    CHANGE Loser!!

  7. Esther Love says:

    I think they are AWESOME!! MIND, BODY AND SPIRIT!! They continue to take the high road!!! This kind of mean spirited trash will continue, so keep your head up!! This idiot can’t promote you, only God can do that!! Look what he’s done thus far!! Please speak your mind and keep it moving!! To God be the Glory!!

  8. Haters gonna hate.

    These girls are awesome in my opinion!

  9. I don’t know maybe this guys needs glasses, or new glasses, because those Williams sister are two beautiful, and sexy women!

  10. I think what lies behind tarpisvhev and other racist and sexist agric fowl’s mind is jealousy, they cannot understand why we have to have such muscles as women while they themselves can’t have as men even after training hard,their women train like hell to have half of the muscles we get sitting on the sofa, but they dnt get.which of those tennis players is more feminine than serena?I am sure tarpischev tried invian to date one of them and is angry he could not get them and has to express it somehow.

  11. RBenstein says:

    As a woman who has experienced similar taunts, insults and the same kind of jokes as the Russian used, this article rubs me the wrong way. Since when do black women get full ownership of the hurt and insecurity that can be caused when being judged for her less than model’s physique ? By continuously evoking the specter of racism, the real issue cannot be addressed.

    Tall women, who have athletic builds, big bones, and/or larger features exist in all races. (Not to mention those with weight issues)

    Any female that fits this description may be discriminated against, by BOTH men and women, boys and girls alike. This discrimination can be just as vile and damaging as racism or sexism or being marginalized by class or status.

    Please don’t limit this important issue to only black women and professional athletes.

    • I agree with you RBenstein. I am a tall black woman and can relate to parts of this article but I think that it is better if one writes from a perspective that is universal…meaning in this case it’s not solely a black woman’s issue. I have had to deal with issues concerning weight, height and on occasion complexion (growing up in the 80s was something else). Other women can relate though so it’s not and never will be a black woman’s issue. It’s not even a woman’s issue!

    • The issue pertains to all women of stature as you say. They are Black. The article is about them. I don’t see it as limited, she even included transfendered women, not specifying race. Why do sites feel that if they aren’t specifically mentioned, it’s reverse racism, or some type of discrimination? I thought this was as thoughtful and well written article. I see you were able to identify with it without your race being mentioned. Guess were just used to it and others are not, after all its only been about ten years since darker shades of foundation – everybody’s not beige to sunkissed – were added by big name cosmetics….ain’t I a woman?

    • Nikki Crowe says:

      Pardon me Miss, your privilege is showing. To learn more about why this about black women and not all women, let’s unpack your knapsack:

      Excellent article, keep speaking out.

    • Obviously, you do not understand the purpose of this article. It is not about your issues, it is about the William’s sisters who are black. Lindsey Davenport, Kim Cloisters(spelling is probably wrong), and Amelie Mauresmo are not delicate flowers, but they are not disparaged. The attacks started, as soon as they started winning. Many people are not happy that two black women raised in the “ghetto” sit/sat at the pinnacle of the tennis elite…we can’t have that! Furthermore, these women are from a religious backround, are socially conscious, entrepreneurs and best of all, the media can’t seem to dig up any dirt on them. I am proud to say that these ladies, have let their skills on the court speak for them!

      • I’m sure Mauresmo was disparaged, especially since she was out as a lesbian (which makes it a sort of intersectional discrimination, like what the Williams sisters face). And I remember the days when the muscular East German women swimmers were quite disparaged–but then the Americans caught up to them in muscularity and now we don’t hear that sort of criticism any more.

      • RBenstein says:

        Martina was disparaged probably even before the Williams were born.

    • sarah godwin says:

      ?!? What the heck are you talking about? Serena Williams worked hard to acquire those muscles. “Sitting on a sofa” didn’t do that and it’s insulting to Serena and Venus and their work ethic to suggest such a thing! Samantha Stosur is white and More muscular than Serena. But Serena has nearly 10 times more Major championship trophies. That’s because Serena Williams wins so much because of her highly prodigious Skill than with her “build.” Quite frankly you sound kind of like racists who crazily try to pretend that all black women are allegedly “more masculine” than white women.

    • sarah godwin says:

      ?!? Why would you strangely think the Williams’s physiques are allegedly “less than ” models’ physiques?! It’s that kind of subconscious internalizing of racist Lies that we have to be on guard against!

  12. Misogyny is still the name of the game. You go, Williams’ sisters, and do not even countenance the stupidity from the other half of the species. Because when it comes right down to it, when the shit hits the fan – and it will – and we are all fighting in the streets, I want you two on my team. You’re beautiful, strong, smart and you’ll survive!

  13. Jimmy Ntambi says:

    What do people expect from sports women? Tall thin Beautiful bolnde models playing tennis in high heels?
    Whatever the drunken Russian says shouldn’t bother you sistas. Play on and eat your dollars.
    You are a first. Girls from the same woumb playin finals at Wimbledon! Where are his beautiful Russian daughters from his wife to take over from you?

  14. They are beautiful. It’s crazy for anyone to say otherwise.

  15. Deborah Battle says:

    I as a black woman have on many occasions been called sir. The fact that society is so shallow means that female athletes or plus sized women are made to feel ugly and unacceptable. People can not look the same. I had to learn to accept myself as I am. The Williams sisters are exceptional athletes. There is nothing wrong with how they look. You do have people that suppoert you.

  16. C. Warren says:

    There’s nothing as ugly as plain old jealousy.

  17. When i saw the remark that the head of federation made I was so mad.Why is it any of his business, who and what the Williams Sisters do.He needs to keep his stupid remarks to himself, nobody wants to hear them. The Williams Sisters are the best when it comes to Tennis, and I so Proud that they represent the U.S.A., Serena, and Venus, we Love you, and continue doing what you do best, playing Tennis.

  18. I personally admire women with strong, athletic bodies. To me, it just shows how they put in the time and effort to make themselves strong for whatever they are trying to achieve.

  19. This Russian seems to have forgotten that many of the female Russian Olympic athletes, of the past, begged questions of their gender. I struggle to recall any of their names, fetes and/or accomplishments today; but everyone resisted insulting them in national media. I can only say that where the Williams sisters are concerned there is little to no comparison in terms of feminine attraction. When they want to show off femininity they do it very well both on and off the court. And, mark my word, they have set records and trends in world arenas that the next several generation throughout the globe will not so easily, as I did the Russians, forget , and it won’t be about their lack of femininity . Incidentally, no relation to the writer; that I know of.

  20. The Russian man’s comments about the Williams’ sisters do not translate to all Black women. Like some of the commenters have said, this comment is an insult to women of ALL ethnicites who have more masculine features in either face or body or both, and believe me, I’ve seen them in EVERY so-called ‘race’… including the very manly-looking Russian Female Atheletes (esp. in the 30s & 40s). Many women of Euro decent look very masculine, so Idk why the writer puts his comments only on women of Afro decent.

  21. Other countries will always feel threatened by the mere presence of the Williams sisters purely because the exemplify GREATNESS and how to be GREAT as Black women. These women are a force of God’s natural human nature to be reckoned with. They demonstrate the superiority of being Black Queens (which they are) in their own right. Such slurred attacks like these have been handed down for generations as if it’s the norm to do so. The Williams clearly demonstrate a mind set that says “having done all to STAND”. Black women and people as a whole have an inner Strength and Determination that has carried us from generation to generation. If these sisters chose to they could have perpetrated the same discriminatory behaviour towards this person’s comment but they being the essence of strength and beauty that they are have remained true to themselves and continue to remain focused. I say KUDOS to them both and to the WTA for instigating their stance against such a derogatory and demeaning comment. These women have carved a neich in Black History. Long may they be shining examples to ALL black children not to let or internalise negative words as they do not define your future only you do. That person will be soon forgotten.

  22. Percevial Murphy says:

    Really great perspective on this. As a personal trainer, many of my black, female clients express fear about building muscles and ultimately “looking like a man.” Often times they really suffer in obtaining their goals because they want strength train or do other things that will create the appearance they desire. Great article.

  23. Im african. I remember how most of the guys in my department had mega crushes on the william’s sisters. They’re beautiful inside and outside. Anyone who passes a nasty comment about their bodies needs to have his brains examined

  24. Biggest William Sisterd Fan says:

    Very well written article. The one thing I disagree wiith is that his comment was ‘subtle’. There is nothing subtle in insults. What amazes me though is that some shoot their lips up, get their booties filled up, worship the tanning booths all in the name of looking like the very idea of beauty that they taunt and insult. Go Figure!

  25. Isis Miller says:

    I am tall with sexy strong body like Serena and I am proud of it.we didn’t ask to be made that way we were made that way.I am bigger and taller than most women standing at 5ft 11 inches,with athletic built,I am also a tennis player and my body type fits my game perfectly. I love the Williams sisters they are my role model .I’d love to get where they are someday, as for u tarpichchevs your jokes are not amusing. Just shows the low mind u have the nasty things that u sit and think about to humiliate others.

  26. Lesson Learned, something we all go through, sometimes you learn early how those people are and you learn how to deal with it. Then the people who created this mess probably watch Fox News all day or heard about evilness all their life. Keep holding your heads high and doing what you do, which is great!

  27. Well said. These women are gorgeous and intelligent and athletic with good business sense as well. Venus was diagnosed with Sjorgen’s Syndrome recently if memory serves me right. The fact that she goes on winning matches and promoting her Eleven clothing range reassures me (coeliac) that auto immune conditions don’t have to be an obstacle in life. Wonderful role models, the two of them

  28. Corinne, thank you for this beautifully written article. You expressed so well the pain and sentiment felt by all black women still fighting for our place where such battles should not be necessary. My prayer is that people see beyond the shock value to realize that our daughters are paying a high price and act on changing the status quo. The shift will gain momentum as each of us speaks out against such ignorance whenever it veers it’s ugly head. Thankful for each and every one of my strong shapely sisters. God bless!

  29. Nan Warner says:

    I am not black although I am African.
    People who make disparaging remarks of any kind need to be kicked out of their jobs and left to sink into the abyss of anonymity until they reach their chosen level.

  30. The Williams sisters are professional athletes. I like so many others find them fit for their position. The WTA acted swiftly, however I don’t think the action taken was enough. Taphischev is a professional in his field of employment. Let’s place the shoe on another persons foot. Now, where I come from in the employment sector, once policy or procedures are disregarded action of course is taken. This Tapischev, should be removed from his position. This sort of behavior must come to an end, and this is the perfect time. The Williams sisters behavior on the courts, once out of line a fine must be paid. This discussion is an outrage to me. Tapishev should be removed, ashamed, and remembered for his terrible, racist, disrespectful, bulling, and demeaning act. The Williams sisters have no choice, but to be strong as truly they apparently are. I applaud the Williams sisters. I’m on-line daily, and the comments regarding this matter are mixed unfortunately. I visit YouTube, and the comments are shameful. Now, I’m truly aware there’re many racist around the world. It’s truly a shame, as to how people just can’t except these two beautiful women, and their profession with love, and respect.

  31. While I support the message the article, I ask everyone to refrain from dissing or belittling women that fall from the other spectrum. The situation will not be helped when different body types are using offensive terms like manly, twig, fat, skin & bones, etc to describe each other. This is an issue for everyone. Please stick together and don’t let the media pit us against each other.

    Imo, the Williams sister have accomplished a terrifying feat for this patriarchal society. They’ve been able to play competitive tennis in the `atp’ level. To all those who follow tennis should be aware that grand slams are five sets in atp but remain 3 in wta. Unfortunately, Wimbledon had the right then to give lesser payout because five and three sets are a huge difference. Serena has expressed her willingness to play five sets which will combat the divisions between men and women tennis. The truth is, these people are aware that the Williams sisters are breaking boundaries and their only defense is to put the sisters apart, to isolate them as a rare case.

  32. everett cox says:

    In addition I think the Russian is a real jerkwad. He reminds me of that Faux Newz asshat who put down the female Muslim fighter pilot with his incredibly stupid “boobs on the ground” comment. This is what happens when the right wing gets control of the airwaves; our culture becomes much more coarsened and brutalized.

  33. He wants the William sisters. Keep making that money sisters. Just like Michael Jordan tooknthe NBA to the next level; you did the same for tennis. Before the William sisters not female had ever served a ball over a hundred miles an hour. Don’t be fooled, the William sisters have made the WTA a lot of money. I won’t speak on the Russian women…and I lived in Europe in the military. Hope everyone can stop talking about this poor soul who’s evidently ashame of his own that he has to insult others who are superior to him.

  34. That Russian guy, as cold as his country, is in fact so envious. Hard.. Too hard for him to accept that black people ARE IN FACT TALENTED. Look at Serena and Venus’ profile. So obvious So he finds comfort in bullying them. He should be dismissed and never again be allowed to go back to any sports thing. He is so”un-sporty”

  35. bklynknight says:

    This Brooklyn hood intelligent CLAPBACK is for the white racist men/women who constantly try to insult venus ans serena williams.

    Fuck you. Of course they are unattractive to you God wanted it that way. Cant u see those women are God bodies. They are darker than you (sun friendly), they are bigger ( made for bigger men, real men, the new men taking your place, nephilim) they, are smarter, richer, more healthy. What created those women is beyond your intelligence. Cant u tell God favors them over you….cant u see God created them/ blessed with their pretty eyes and strong legs to run cave women all over the court. AND OMG wait til the Williams sisters have children…any sons of theirs will be your worst nightmare. U wont be able to shoot or jail them cause GUESS WHAT the williams sisters have also been blessed by God to be born into intelligence (superior minds). Stop trying to dis us. The last shall b first and first shall be last. GOOD DAY.

  36. bklynknight says:

    Its ok for black women to be insulted right? Freedom of speech, equal rights? I guess my words were too harsh….BUT MY SISTAZ (whom i love dearly for being strong positive influences) CAN BE CALLED MONKEYS RIGHT!? boy am i glad God is fair, he will finish handling this.

  37. I am always struck by how charismatic and beautiful the Williams sisters are on screen and in interviews. It makes the insults about their alleged masculinity seem more deranged and racist. For any person of the world who instinctively treat people as equals, it is then easy to see this behaviour for what it is; i.e. racists barking at the moon. Serena and Venus are conventionally beautiful, I am in no doubt about that. If you don’t see it then you can’t appreciate facial symmetry and physical fitness. They have stunning smiles, good skin and lovely feminine voices. Need I go on?

    And don’t even get me started on what they’ve achieved in tennis. I’m just awestruck constantly at their trailblazing. My sister and I are exactly the same ages as both Serena and Venus and have followed their careers all this time from when we sat down together to watch them with their beaded dreads. Whenever I think Serena have reached her peak she pushes on and maintains her singular dominance over the entire sport. After her blood clot she was back in slam finals within 6 months.

    They put the awe in awesome.

  38. Dingle Berry says:

    I only wish my fiance had half of the muscle tone and body shape that they do. White people just don’t know what to say out of their mouth.

  39. I don’t understand the people who claim they’re men. Some people act like they’ve never seen female body builders. Those women look a lot more masculine than these two & are STILL women! They’re athletes for crying out loud! In my opinion, I think they look great!

Speak Your Mind


Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!