French officials have announced they will ban Serena Williams's signature black catsuit from future French Open tournaments. The athlete's response shows deep emotional intelligence.

Even if you don't care much about tennis, you may have heard about Serena Williams turning heads at the French Open in May with her black, full-body catsuit. The garment, specially designed for her, is as much a social statement as a fashion statement. Although the suit was designed before Black Panther came out, she says it makes her think of Wakanda, the fictional nation in the movie.

For Williams and her millions of fans, it has come to symbolize women's empowerment. "It feels like this suit represents all the women that have been through a lot mentally, physically, with their body to come back and have confidence and to believe in themselves," she told The Guardian. She added, "I always wanted to be a superhero and it's kind of my way of being a superhero."

On top of that, the catsuit serves a medical purpose. Williams suffered severe health problems, notably blood clots, after the recent birth of her first child. The catsuit provides compression, preventing new clots from forming.

None of this was good enough for the officials who preside over the French Open tournament, however. In an interview with Tennis magazine, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli announced that the catsuit would no longer be permitted at the tournament. "I think that sometimes we've gone too far," he said, adding that Williams's catsuit "will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place."

What are these new rules the Federation is putting in place? Will it, for instance, require all white outfits, as Wimbledon has for years? That's a simple rule that Williams followed by wearing a white outfit and white compression leggings to that tournament. 

But the French officials don't want to commit themselves to anything as straightforward as decreeing that specific colors or clothing items are off-limits. Instead, they seem to be taking a we'll-know-it-when-we-see-it approach. They plan to decide on a case-by-case basis, requiring athletes to submit their outfits for review and disallowing the ones they judge go "too far." They haven't even explained what it is that goes too far about Williams's catsuit. The fact that it's black? That it has a red belt? That it's form-fitting? Although that seems an odd objection in a sport where miniskirts are the norm.

Or is their real objection to the body inside the suit? It's certain that Williams's build, which has been described as linebacker-like, does not conform to usual French ideas about female beauty. You have to wonder whether they'd mind the catsuit so much if the athlete wearing it were willowy and blond instead.

If all this makes you angry, you're not alone.

Nike, which created the suit for Williams, responded with less ire but made its point just as well.

And right about then, before this could blow up into a major international social-media scandal, Williams herself called a halt to hostilities with a serene response that lives up to her name. During a press conference, she assured reporters that she had already talked to the French Open officials and "we have a great relationship." With a smile, she added, "Everything's fine, guys."

Asked about her clotting issue, she explained that she had since found other ways to address it without wearing the catsuit. Besides, she said, "when it comes to fashion, you don't want to be a repeat offender. So it'll be a while before this even has to come up again."

She could have been incensed at the unstated gender and racial bias implicit in a ban that seems to single her out. She could have ridden the wave of growing social-media outrage to put pressure on the French Open to reconsider its rules, or at least write actual rules instead of literally casting itself as the fashion police. Instead, she beautifully embodied Michelle Obama's advice, "When they go low, you go high."

Thanks to her maturity and emotional intelligence, what could have been an ugly controversy is over almost before it began.

Published on: Aug 26, 2018
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