Poppy Harlow to Serena Williams: Thank you

A week after suffering the heaviest defeat of her career, tennis star Serena Williams admitted in an Instagram post that she is struggling with "postpartum emotions" and has felt in a "funk."

Posted: Aug 8, 2018 3:49 PM
Updated: Aug 8, 2018 4:06 PM

Beyoncé and Serena Williams have once again proven that they are icons -- but this time, it's not for the reasons you might think. I'm not referring to their legendary professional accomplishments, but rather to their willingness to speak out publicly to counteract the pervasive fat-shaming that surrounds women's postpartum bodies.

Earlier this week, in a rare and candid as-told-to Vogue feature, Beyoncé spoke about her difficult pregnancy with twins Rumi and Sir, revealing that she weighed 218 pounds the day she gave birth by emergency C-section because she had been suffering from toxemia -- more commonly known as pre-eclampsia and whose typical symptoms are high blood pressure and swelling of the limbs -- and had been on bed rest for over a month.

She contrasted this birth with that of her daughter Blue, when she felt pressure to lose all the baby weight in three months. This time, she said, "During my recovery, I gave myself self-love and self-care, and I embraced being curvier. I accepted what my body wanted to be. ... To this day my arms, shoulders, breasts, and thighs are fuller. I have a little mommy pouch, and I'm in no rush to get rid of it."

Twitter went particularly crazy over the kicker of this part of the feature: "But right now, my little FUPA and I feel like we are meant to be." And rightly so: the Queen of popular music and one of the sexiest women in the world has embraced her "Fat Upper Pubic Area" (the "p" sometimes stands for a different word), the fatty pouch that hangs over the genital area that is the bane of many a mother's existence.

Beyoncé's public revelation of her weight was a real bombshell, as it represents for many women (myself included) one of the most private details of a woman's pregnancy. Right after giving birth to my second child a little over six months ago, a nurse asked me what my last recorded weight was and I was ashamed to say it out loud with my husband in the room.

This despite the fact that I have become a rather vocal critic of fat-shaming and am constantly striving to let go of what I now see as the fat phobia that surrounded me during my childhood and adolescence. And yet, I was still embarrassed by that number on the scale because it began with the number "2." I never imagined Beyoncé's number did, too.

I felt a similar sense of relief a month ago when, before becoming a finalist at Wimbledon just 10 months after giving birth, Serena Williams revealed that she struggled to lose weight while breastfeeding, despite observing a strict diet and exercise regimen. She said, "You hear when you breastfeed you lose weight and you're so thin, and it wasn't happening to me. ... For my body, it didn't work, no matter how much I worked out, no matter how much I did."

In fact, Serena said she quickly lost 10 pounds once she stopped breastfeeding. This statement exploded the common assumption that breastfeeding and weight loss go hand in hand, and resonated strongly with me and, I'm quite sure, thousands of other mothers for whom breastfeeding did not result in weight loss.

While I would never argue this is a myth, the notion that breastfeeding will automatically lead to weight loss -- which is reinforced by virtually all medical professionals, lactation consultants, and parenting websites a woman encounters during and after pregnancy -- is a generalization that doesn't account for the diversity of body types among women. It directly contributes to further unrealistic expectations for women during the postpartum period, namely that women should "bounce back" (return to their pre-pregnancy weight) as quickly as possible.

It's also not lost on me that Beyoncé and Serena are two black women putting forth a different narrative about the ways women's bodies change during and after pregnancy. This is particularly significant because black women suffer from disproportionately high maternal mortality rates, partly because they are too often not believed or taken seriously by medical professionals.

According to her interview in Vogue earlier this year, had Serena not advocated for herself and been so familiar with her medical history, her post-birth complications could have been even more serious. It's possible that Beyoncé's pregnancy complications were also affected by her race, as black women are 50% more likely than women of other races to have pre-eclampsia or eclampsia (seizures that can develop in women with pre-eclampsia).

Not only do black women have to fight harder to advocate for themselves during and after pregnancy — which sometimes means refusing a doctor's suggestions — but they also have a long history of challenging mainstream beauty standards that privilege thinness and whiteness. Serena and Beyoncé are the most public examples of the myriad ways black women are modeling self-care and self-love in a society that regularly denigrates them as too loud, too arrogant (see the petty reactions by some white women to Beyoncé's pregnancy announcement), or too aggressive/"mannish" (see the trolling Serena has received throughout her entire career).

Taken together, these statements by the greatest performer and the greatest female athlete of our time, respectively, are challenges to the toxic body-shaming of women during and after pregnancy that our society urgently needs to hear. Anyone remember Kim Kardashian's first pregnancy, during which she was compared to a whale?

I am grateful for these public statements by celebrity mothers of color -- which also include the blunt and hugely relatable Instagram and Twitter feeds of model Chrissy Teigen -- that destigmatize pregnancy-related weight gain and encourage women to accept that their postpartum bodies will never mirror their previous ones, even if they breastfeed their babies.

As women who have not historically seen themselves on the cover of magazines, mothers of color — particularly black women — have a lot to teach us, not because they can save us from ourselves (painting them as saviors only strips their humanity and freedom to mess up like the rest of us, and it's not their job to carry us on their backs!) but because they have had to advocate for and love themselves against all odds for centuries.

This is the kind of strength and self-acceptance I want my own daughter to see as she grows up.

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