Normalizing pregnancy for the rest of us—one ace at a time.
Serena Williams sent the Internet into a tailspin yesterday when she announced on Snapchat that she was 20 weeks pregnant. The tizzy grew as observers collectively counted backwards and realized the tennis champion was nearly two months pregnant when she won her 23rd Grand Slam, the Australian Open, in January. During the entire tournament, she didn’t drop a set.
The feat reinforced Williams’ long-established reputation as one of the greatest athletes of all time—female or otherwise—but also delivered a powerful message to the wider world, conveying that pregnancy does not define or physically handicap a woman from the moment of conception.
Celebrities have a torrid relationship with pregnancy. Some publicize it (see Beyoncé) and others hide it for as long possible (see Eva Mendez, Alexis Bledel). But given the chance, the media will swoop in with a cry of “baby bump!”—an effort to satisfy our culture’s glorified version of motherhood and its obsession with the female form.
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“[W]e live in an age when women are supposed to perform pregnancy,” Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told the Financial Times last year. She kept her own pregnancy quiet until after giving birth. “We don’t expect fathers to perform fatherhood. I went into hiding. I wanted it to be as personal as possible.”
Viewing pregnancy this way is not fair to celebrities, whose growing stomachs, however small, immediately seem to eclipse their artistic talent in the public eye. Nor is it helpful to the many decidedly un-famous women in the workplace whose pregnancies are still viewed as all-consuming or debilitating. For evidence of how “abnormal” pregnancy remains at work, just look at the EEOC’s data on the pregnancy discrimination charges. In fiscal year 2016, women filed 5,170 charges of bias related to pregnancy or maternity issues with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and state and local Fair Employment Practices agencies, down from a high of roughly 6,300 in 2008 but consistent with the total from a decade earlier.
All of this stems from society’s abiding view of women as one-dimensional. A pregnant woman’s sole role is to be an expectant mother, a role that supersedes and interferes with her other duties. A pregnant Amal Clooney is identified by her protruding belly rather than her human rights work. Italian politician Giorgia Meloni was told by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that her pregnancy disqualified her as a candidate for Rome mayor.
What makes Williams’ title at the Australian Open so extraordinary—beyond winning in straight sets while eight weeks pregnant—is that it helped make pregnancy more ordinary for the rest of us.