Black Women at the London Olympics: An Open Letter to Essence Magazine

Dear Ms. Constance White,

The 2012 Olympic Games have come to a close and we are in complete and utter awe of the magnificent Black women, American and international, who have competed in an array of sporting events, and in many instances, won medals. We did enjoy the article feature in the June issue on Claressa Shields and the gallery of 25 women to look for in the Olympics. However, coverage of Black women athletes in Essence’s print magazine leading up to the London Olympics was few and far between, as well as, coverage in its online forum was little paid attention during the 17 days of the summer event.

It was refreshing to witness the strength, grace and athletic beauty on display at the London games by the female athlete representatives from across the African diaspora. Set against the backdrop of Olympics, an event unparalleled in scope of coverage and viewership, surely there was ample opportunity to create a more compelling narrative of black health by highlighting the black female athlete to contrast the insensitive, and oftentimes demeaning, image of black women as the face of the obesity epidemic portrayed by mainstream media. Essence, where were you?

We have always admired the in-depth understanding and platform that Essence magazine has given African-American women. It has been a driving force in highlighting the beauty and dynamic lifestyles of Black women across the world. We look to your pages for the undeniable style, rich stories and thoughtful perspectives that are often passed over by mainstream media. In fact, Essence is a publication that was created to provide a voice and a more accurate representation of women of color in the United States, and still thrives on that invaluable tenet.

As a health research specialist and a media studies scholar, we are heavily interested and invested in the health and representation of Black women. With the wide range of body types that black women athletes possess, the London Olympics provided an excellent opportunity to provide in-depth display impeccable examples of Black fitness, all the while, furnishing a refreshing personification of Black women embodying excellent health, instead of being casted as the face and body of the obesity epidemic. Reports and articles highlight health disparities consistently featuring African-American women as the delegates of ill-health, particularly the ‘obesity epidemic’. Showcasing these athletes would have been a great opportunity to not only prove that there is a variety of physical forms that healthy Black women take on, but also could have provided hope and inspiration to those that are looking to get fit.

However, the Olympics is the global main stage that has made people think twice about the Black female physique and aesthetic. Black women athletes are as diverse in their sport of choice, as they are in complexion, hair styles and personal flair. And when you pair their profound narratives with their Olympic performances, their remarkable life stories become heroic. From the broken world records to displays of resilience, despite the innumerable amount of sacrifices, and for some, an uphill battle that included healing from a life of abuse and poverty, have been empowering and inspirational for all who have watched.

These triumphs are particularly true for athletes such as Gabby Douglas, Claressa Shields and Lolo Jones. Douglas is the first African-American to win a gold medal in all-around gymnastics, but experienced many disappointments along the way that included being considered ‘not good enough’ for the Olympic team. At the same time, we cannot forget the triumphs of gold-medalist Shields, the second youngest female boxer in US history who used boxing to assist her in overcoming an abusive environment as a child. Neither can we deny the strength of Jones, who was celebrated for surpassing insurmountable obstacles, yet had to face unfair critique when she did not medal for the second Olympics in the hurdles. In some instances, we have seen Black women contend for the first time or perform exceptionally well, in sporting events that have been traditionally dominated by non-Blacks. Given the economic disparities that exist in the US, and in particular, in sports, Essence could have given deeper coverage of stories like Maya Lawrence winning a bronze in Women’s Epee fencing; Lia Neal in the 4x100m freestyle relay; or the dominating presence of the Williams’ sisters taking the doubles gold in tennis, and Serena garnering an individual gold medal. To top it off, the fascinating highlights of women like Alice Coachman, the first Black woman to win a gold medal (1948) showcased our legacy of elite athleticism, poise, and beauty on a world stage, even when they faced a system of injustice in their own country.

We recognize these wins are representative of a country and not necessarily of a particular racial or ethnic group, but it would be naive and misleading to not acknowledge these feats since African-Americans have only been permitted to participate in the modern Olympics as American citizens for a little over a century and the first African-American woman not competing until 1936 (See Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes). We, like many Black women, tuned in, celebrated, and shed tears during these games because their wins, were ours—as black women and citizens.

Additionally, the London Olympics provided an unparalleled opportunity for Essence to highlight women athletes of the diaspora; especially being that the US has a significant contingency of Caribbean, South American and European citizens of African descent, along with first, second and third generation African immigrants. There were scores of black women diaspora athletes on the soccer, volleyball and basketball teams of the world. We even saw the steadfast presence of black women who, like us, are not afraid to get their hair wet in Jamaican swimmer Alia Atkinson who was just out-touched for a bronze in the 100m breaststroke finals; and Emile Heymans who won bronze in the women’s synchronized 3m springboard diving. Also, our diasporan sisters earned a host of medals like Nicola Adams, who captured the gold as a flyweight in boxing, Lucie Decosse who kicked butt to a gold in Judo, Shara Proctor an Anguillian who won a gold in the long jump for Great Britain and broke the GB national record, and the memorable fastest woman on the planet, Shelley-Ann Fraser Pryce, and the Jamaican track and field team.

As a media outlet focused on Black women’s lifestyle, Essence had an amazing opportunity to display Black women in top physical condition, as well as professionals who understand that true fitness incorporates so much more than the body, but also mental, nutritional, and spiritual fitness. Remember these women are more than athletes – they are business women, entrepreneurs, wives, mothers, students, teachers, etc – but most importantly, they are women who, like your readers, must find ways to cope with the stresses of everyday life. It would have been of great benefit to learn how these black women manage work-life balance, or the mental techniques they used to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime experience, or perhaps they leveraged their circle of support, and in some cases, the baggage that they had to cut off in order to achieve their goals.

Lastly, we must emphasize, in this day of reality television and many videos still casting Black women in negative depictions, this would have been a chance to level the playing field (or at the very least disrupt the unfortunate norms); especially since the age of new media provides so many resources and technology to disseminate images, messages, representations, and voices in spaces that might have difficult to tap in the past. If Essence wants to continue the legacy of being one of the premier venues for Black female culture, it must embrace these huge events as Black women make their mark in the world. The Olympics show girls of color that beauty does not have to come solely from make-up, the latest fashions or even the trendiest hairdo, but it can most certainly come from hard work, determination and accomplishing your goals. As some little girl flips through your pages as we once did, we encourage you to highlight these women not only for their athletic achievements, but for the inspirational, awesome women they are.

Although we are not celebrities, public figures, or even athletes, we are inspired to live our lives healthily and to give our all in the pursuit of our passions. As current subscribers, we hope that Essence magazine upholds its reputation as the ‘go-to’ source for African-American women, and features these ladies, as well as those in the diaspora, in the bright light they deserve in your next print issue, online, or even by creating a special edition featuring the black women of the London Olympics. Surely, by the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro these opportunities will be considered.

Respectfully,

Ayanna D. Shivers, MPH

Kaia N. Shivers, M.A.

Ayanna D. Shivers has an MPH in International Health & Global studies with an emphasis on Health Behavior. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Social Psychology at Howard University and lectures in the areas of psychology and health. Her research interests include Black women’s health, culture, and social media.

Kaia N. Shivers is an activist, writer, artist, and doctoral candidate in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University. She is currently teaching digital media at Marymount Manhattan College and lives in Newark where she is researching consumption of African video films and identity amongst black communities in the NYC metropolis.