By Michelle Konstantinovsky Serena Williams
Serena Williams—yes, the Serena Williams who revolutionized tennis, won more Grand Slam titles than any other player in the Open Era, and earned four Olympic gold medals over the course of her career—made her professional debut when she was 14. While that seems young, many girls are already on their way out of sports by then. In fact, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), by age 14, girls drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys.
Knowing this to be the case, Williams decided to take action. As a brand ambassador for Secret Deodorant, she partnered with the brand on its Just #WatchMe campaign, which is dedicated to raising awareness around the disparities and inequities that keep girls from athletic pursuits.
“[The campaign is] focused on improving the statistic of young girls dropping out of sports at two times the rate of young boys—and that’s mostly due to underfunding and underrepresentation,” Serena Williams tells SELF. “This campaign is really empowering young girl athletes to keep going in the sport that they love by encouraging everyone in their lives to ‘just watch them’ and see how that little help can go so far.”
Although Williams won’t be competing at the Olympics this year in Tokyo, she’ll be busy over the span of the Games, working with Secret to shine a spotlight on the barriers and disadvantages that prevent young women from realizing their full athletic potential. As part of Secret’s Just #WatchMe campaign, the brand invited people to a 24-hour pop-up installation in New York’s Merchants Gate Plaza on July 27 to watch women Olympians compete on the global stage.
“One reason I’m excited about this campaign is that it’s not just about me; it’s really about supporting young girls in women’s sports,” Serena Williams says. “I really am passionate about this, and I feel like the more people know about what they can do to help our young ladies be amazing, the more awesome it will be.”
Williams, who is also a mom to three-year-old daughter Alexis Olympia, says the Just #WatchMe campaign has far-reaching potential beyond the sports sphere.
In fact, she says, a lot of things she’s learned throughout her life have come from sport.
“You have all these expectations, and you never for a minute think that sport can do so much for you and bring so much light to you outside of the sport,” she says. “It’s really this kind of aha moment. You have at one point like, ‘Okay, I’m able to deal with this situation [in life] because of what happened here, and I’m able to understand myself better because of this particular situation.’ It’s really unique, and it’s exciting for me to try and expand that to other young girls to have the same opportunity.”
As Serena Williams explains, sport has helped bring her greater clarity throughout her life, whether on the court or off. She sat down with SELF to talk about some of the greater understandings about herself she’s uncovered, spurred along in part by her passion for helping young girls reach their own full potential, too.
1. Inclusivity is key, and it matters everywhere.
When Serena Williams was just coming up in tennis, she didn’t see athletes who looked like her, as she told British Vogue last fall.
And the WSF seconds that even now, emphasizing how this lack of representation—a dearth of “confident, strong female athletic role models”—can affect girls’ desire to pursue sports. Williams, though, wants to change that: She’s widely considered to be the modern-day antidote to the antiquated but persistent stereotypes surrounding “femininity” in athletics, and has been credited with expanding rigid beauty standards. She’s done this not only through her style choices on the court, but also through her passion project, S by Serena, a brand she intentionally created to be inclusive and approachable for all customers.
“I’ve been around designs that didn’t really include my shape, and I wanted to make sure that if I ever had [a brand] I’d want it to include people who were a little bit curvier,” she says. “No matter what size you are—whether you’re small, large, we’ve got something for you, and that’s something that’s really important to me.” That’s why the brand offers sizes ranging from XS to 3XL, and states on its website that its styles are designed to empower “people to feel their best, look their best, and be their best selves.”
The hope with her brand, Serena Williams says, is that it can foster this feeling while people are browsing the racks—and afterward.
“If you’re constantly shopping and you’re not seeing your size, you start to believe that maybe you’re too big, or you don’t look good enough, or you don’t feel good enough, and we just don’t want those attitudes,” she says. “We want everyone to feel great.”
2. Self-care in sports is a challenge—but it’s vital.
Fashion, and fostering inclusivity in it, is just one area Williams has focused on in recent months. She kept busy throughout 2020, and, like many of us, spent the COVID-19 pandemic reflecting on the unforeseen circumstances and how to navigate a post-pandemic life.
While Serena Williams took part in the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) Tour last year, the tournaments were suspended in mid-March, affording her the rare, unprecedented opportunity for downtime. Though the context for the career recess was steeped in tragedy, Williams says she was fortunate for the chance to reset.
“I was hoping it would be a new beginning for healing—physically and everything,” she says. (Upon resuming her demanding schedule, though, Serena Williams was forced to withdraw from the French Open in September due to an Achilles injury).
Healing is a topic that’s been particularly pertinent in the athletic world recently, as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have both recently made headlines for shining a light on the critical need for more awareness, sensitivity, and empathy around mental health issues. Psychological self-care is an issue Williams says is deeply personal to each individual, and is a skill she’s still learning to master.
“I feel like you have to be able to find a good balance,” Serena Williams says of the push and pull between an inherently demanding career and the need for self-preservation. “It’s hard for a lot of people.”
Herself included. In fact, while Williams understands the importance of self-care, she’s hesitant to portray herself as a model for how to do it, since she still believes she has much to learn about putting it into practice.
“I don’t know if I’m the best person to speak on it, but I feel like you have to take care of you, and one of the most important things you have to learn in life is to put you first,” she says. “I think some people learn that the easy way, and some people learn it the hard way. I’m still learning—it’s definitely a work in progress.”
3. A workout you enjoy can be a game changer.
While you might think Serena Williams—whom tennis legends like Andre Agassi and Roger Federer have proclaimed to likely be the game’s greatest player—gets all the training she needs on the court, she still diversifies her workout routine for those ever-important cross-training benefits. And one of her favorite ways to do so is surprisingly relatable: She has a serious Peloton habit.
“Those Peloton people are so inspirational!” she says. “They’ll be like ‘If you can get through this, you can get through your day, so you gotta do it!’ I’m like ‘I got you! I’m here!’”
Peloton is known for its arsenal of motivational instructors, but there’s one who Serena Williams turns to time and time again for her cycling workouts: British instructor Ben Alldis, whose tough climbs and HIIT rides are considered to be some of the platform’s most intense offerings.
“When I get on the Peloton, I don’t wanna dance, I just wanna work,” she says. “And this guy— he’s only about working!”
It’s his no-nonsense attitude that appeals to her when she wants to get her workout in—and not spend too much time dawdling doing so.
“I just want to get on and get off,” she says. “That says a lot about my personality, it’s the same: I’m ready to work and nothing else, no fun! Don’t tell me this is fun when it’s not, let’s get it over with!”
Serena Williams delivers that line with a laugh, making us think she still does set aside some time for more lighthearted pursuits. Although work will likely continue to dominate her schedule for the foreseeable future, the heart-melting family photos and dreamy poolside pics populating her Instagram page make us think she still knows how to make room for a good time.