Serena Williams’ latest naked pregnant photo shoot propels the discussion on body positivity and female sexuality

She has abandoned the garb of an athlete, and in her nakedness, she is celebrating womanhood, motherhood and her body. Williams has (perhaps unknowingly) initiated an important dialogue. It's a tough dialogue, but one that is necessary.

Written by Express Web Desk | Updated: June 30, 2017 3:38:50 pm
serena williams, serena williams pregnant, serena williams magazine, serena williams nude, serena williams naked, tennis news, sports news, indian express A pregnant Serena Williams posed naked for Vanity Fair’s cover photo

On the cover of Vanity Fair, Serena Williams stands almost naked, ethereal, exposing her pregnant belly, jewelled by a thin, delicate waist chain. Her open hair suggests fluidity, carrying an energy that is limitless, unbound. In all her natural, raw energy, Williams appears fierce, divine and flawlessly feminine, embracing motherhood in all its glory. Through the photograph, the tennis star brings out the beauty of being pregnant (which is traditionally bound to private spaces), into the larger, public context of our phones, desktops and lives. She has abandoned the garb of an athlete, and in her nakedness, she is celebrating womanhood, motherhood and her body. In doing so, Williams has (perhaps unknowingly) initiated an important dialogue. It’s a tough dialogue, but one that is necessary.

While her loyalists have applauded her, there are fringe naysayers who object to Williams ‘exposing’ herself. Since the photograph has gone viral, she has received considerable criticism for posing nude — for exhibiting the most natural phenomenon. Many labelled it as ‘disgusting’ and ‘trashy’.

In today’s image-obsessed society, physical appearances matter. If you are a celebrity, it matters exponentially. Female celebrities’ bodies are given substantial currency, perhaps more so than their work. They have to be fit, toned and desirable. As long as they conform to the expectations of the ubiquitous ‘male gaze’, women are glorified. “The female nude in Western painting was there to feed an appetite of male sexual desire,” wrote John Berger, while discussing how women were represented in European paintings, in Ways of Seeing. “She existed to be looked at, posed in such a way that her body was displayed to the eye of the viewer.” The viewer, or the spectator, in this case, is presumed to be a man.

A woman’s body must, therefore, exist to serve the desire of the spectator. Any variation from the ‘expected’  is considered undesirable, and therefore, subject to criticism. In the world of glamour, where ethereal beauty is inextricably linked to how-well-you-can-photoshop – scars, belly fat, stretch marks and pregnant women don’t figure. And if a woman – like Williams – unapologetically displays it, she is body-shammed. When a celebrity is expecting, she temporarily retreats into obscurity, away from the glare of lights and glamour.

Being pregnant, however, should be celebrated – it’s beautiful, empowering and the only reason mankind exists. It should not be shunned behind doors. It should not be covered up in floppy, ballooning outfits. It should be a woman’s prerogative to represent, symbolically, an important stage in her life.

Demi Moore was the first to go all out and show off her pregnant belly to the world. It was for the cover of Vanity Fair. Riding the wave of feminism back in 1991, Moore had stirred quite a few storms in the celebrity world. But that image went on to attain a iconic, cult status. It rampaged stereotypes; initiating a trend for celebrities such as Natalie Portman, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera (and now Williams) to follow suit.

In India, when a woman celebrity is pregnant, she conforms to the unsaid social norms and takes ‘time off’ to have her baby. She disappears from the television screens and goes off the radar. If she steps out in public domain, she does so while being fully-clothed with her belly ostensibly hidden, rather than accentuated. In effect then, flaunting a pregnant belly in India is still in its embryonic stage – and only a few stars have tried to alter that. From Konkona Sen Sharma to Lisa Haydon and Celina Jaitley, a handful have boldly posed for the camera while being pregnant. Kareena Kapoor Khan, on the other hand, took on the mantel to walk the ramp as a bride while being pregnant, challenging the social convention that an Indian bride cannot be “with child” before marriage.

However, whenever cultural conventions are altered with an attempt to re-sculpt them, there is an almost immediate social fervour anchored in morality. While Williams has received a substantial backlash, the important thing is that this has propelled the discussion on body image, female sexuality and motherhood forward. And that’s what we need right now.

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