Why Serena Williams’ Sports Illustrated Win Is About So Much More Than Tennis

And her body is so much more than eye candy.
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And her body is so much more than eye candy.

Serena Williams has been named Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year. Although this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, American Pharaoh, won Sports Illustrated’s online poll, Williams’ selection is hardly surprising (or undeserving). Williams won twenty-six of her twenty-seven Grand Slam matches this year. Although her one loss kept her from achieving a calendar grand slam (winning all four major tennis titles in a single year), she is still the number one female tennis player in the nation—a ranking she has achieved on six separate occasions throughout her 21-year career. More than simply the athlete of 2015, Williams has dominated women’s tennis for nearly two decades. The 34-year-old won her first grand slam in 1999 at the age of 17. She’s won twenty more since: six at Wimbledon, six at the US Open, six at the Australian Open, and three at the French Open. Roger Federer, who leads the men in most grand slams, has won seventeen.

Regardless of whether Williams deserves the title, she certainly deserves our respect. Williams’ body may be somewhat suggestively displayed on the recent SI cover, as with the recent Pirelli calendar, but her athletic achievements are a testament to the benefit of recognizing the potential of the female body beyond being nice to look at. Williams does not have the tall, slender, waiflike figure that our society loves to objectify, but rather than devoting her life to slimming it down to more socially lauded proportions, she devoted her life to making the most of its incredible strength.

I don’t pretend to know whether Williams has ever had body image issues, but recognizing that my body is more than just something to be looked at has certainly been instrumental in overcoming my own bodily insecurities. I have so-called “thunder thighs” and spent most of my young adult life lamenting their existence. Even as an athlete in both high school and college (I played tennis, coincidentally), I found myself continually wondering why they were so unnecessarily muscular. Then, sometime in the latter half of college, possibly because I’d given up on ever achieving the skinny legs I wanted, my goals started to shift. I largely stopped asking myself how I could change the shape of my legs and started wondering how far they could take me. Rather than exercising to tone, shape, or slim certain areas of my body that I didn’t like, I started training to push my limits. I ran a half marathon, then a triathlon, then a marathon, and then another one. And with each new challenge, I’ve come to further love my body for everything it is and all that it is capable of. I am no paragon of self-confidence—far from it—but watching my body accomplish things I never thought it capable of has drastically improved my view of it.

No, you don’t have to push your body to its absolute limits of physical ability to appreciate it. And, frankly, there are a great many things more important than our bodies and what they can do. But I think it is worth recognizing our bodies for what they are, and what they are is more than a pretty thing to look at. From showing affection to bearing children to, yes, playing tennis, our bodies are capable of so much more than being easy on the eyes. Serena Williams may demonstrate that better than anyone.

Photo Credit: Grant Lamos IV / Getty Images