Time’s Up on the Policing of Black Women and Girls’ Bodies

Black women’s bodies — be it their coily hair or curvy bodies — have long been subject to special scrutiny and while feminism has evolved, sadly much hasn’t changed.

This weekend, I watched social media go into a frenzy following the French Tennis Federation president’s recent decision to ban the cat suit worn by Serena Williams at this year’s French Open. The decision to call Serena out on her figure-flattering compression suit isn’t totally surprising. From the frequency of her drug testing to disparities in endorsements — it’s clear that Serena is held to a higher standard than her counterparts. Yet, the president’s comments that “… we’ve gone too far,” and “one must respect the game and the place” were triggering, stinging of the familiar blend of racism and sexism that attempts to condescend and shame black women. While Serena handled the fiasco with grace, as she always does, the situation made me think… just what exactly was so disrespectful about her clothing decision?

Being called out for clothing choices isn’t totally unfamiliar to women, especially black women and girls, who are taught very early that our bodies are subject to special attention and stricter guidelines. From being sent to the principal’s office for wearing skirts that fail to touch our finger tips because they ride our curves, to receiving messages in our professional lives that our bodies and hair are inherently unprofessional. The arbitrary guidelines enforced upon black women’s physical appearance and bodies are never ending. I can vividly recall the times I’ve been told to “put some clothes on” when in the presence of male family members, or given unsolicited suggestions from managers and professors to reconsider my beauty and clothing choices to avoid appearing “overconfident” or “frivolous.”

While it’s easy to dismiss these comments as harmless, a recent study by the National Women’s Law Center examining school dress codes demonstrates how the normalization of policing and projecting prejudices upon black women’s bodies have very real consequences. The study evaluating DC schools, found dress codes to be unnecessarily strict and more likely to punish black female students with suspensions and expulsions. This growing body of research validates familiar instances of private and public shame long endured by many black girls, bringing light to the discriminatory and unequitable standards we long speculated to exist.

While the policing starts in school, it follows black women long after they leave the classroom and little has been done to examine the psychological effects. Regardless of the proposed intent, the scrutiny and special attention given to black women concerning their bodies can evoke shame. Though perhaps the true shame belongs to those who fail to see beyond their own biases and internal prejudices? Afterall, these biases and judgements rarely have anything to do with black women’s achievement or performance, but more to do with marginalizing and minimizing black women.

So as feminism continues to evolve, let’s steadily work to unpack the notion that black women- or any woman for that matter- must tone it down or play small in an effort to not offend or get ahead. Whether on the court, at school or in the workplace — clothing or beauty choices are not incompatible with one’s capability or intelligence. Unapologetically embracing oneself isn’t arrogant, haughty or disrespectful and we must call out guidelines or dress codes informed by racism and sexism every chance we get.