Venus Williams captures imagination

Over the last few days, I feel like I've heard more about Venus Williams' bottom than the oil spill in the Gulf.

The comments about Williams' posterior, which were ignited by a tennis outfit she wore at the French Open this week, have ranged from appreciation to surprise to disgust. The way some folks reacted, you would have thought Williams planted a stripper pole in the middle of Roland Garros, brought out some strobe lights, and started gyrating like Britney Spears.

Williams wore a lace corset with flesh-colored shorts underneath, and some believe her attire was inappropriate. A New York Daily News writer wrote that Williams showed a "blatant disregard for traditional tennis attire." A blogger said she looked like she was "dressed for some late night party." An overseas publication referred to Williams' clothing as a "negligee."

It's the exact reaction Williams wanted.

"It's really all about the illusion," Williams told reporters. "What's the point of wearing lace when there's just black under? The illusion of just having bare skin is definitely, for me, a lot more beautiful."

Athletes, both male and female, are unafraid these days to use bare skin to create buzz or express themselves because they've come to the realization that the public is all too eager to see what's beneath the uniform.

Or in Williams' case, imagine what's underneath.

That Williams' illusionary commando effect has created such a significant storyline at the French Open proves just how much we're obsessed with athletes' bodies -- and it's a little surprising, considering that for anyone with an Internet connection and an interest in sex or anatomy, there's nothing left to the imagination.

If Williams weren't a star and her behind were as flat as a library book, pictures of her in racy tennis attire wouldn't be circulating the Internet at warp speed.

"It just so happens that I have a very well-developed one," Williams said, referring to her posterior. "It's all genetic.''

If her sister, Serena, weren't the personification of the Commodores' classic song "Brick House," the black cat-suit she donned for the U.S. Open in 2002 wouldn't have sparked a national debate.

We're such a nation of peeping Toms, giggling and snickering like teenagers over athletes' body parts.

When nude photos of Greg Oden, Grady Sizemore, Santonio Holmes, Dorell Wright and George Hill were released without their consent on the Internet, some of us behaved like high school students in a sex-education class.

Seriously, why are we so fascinated with an athlete's "parts"?

Is it admiration or envy? Or in terms of physique, aspirational?

Let's be real: Part of our fixation is based on the insecurities harbored by men and women.

For example, there were plenty of men who were titillated by Williams' "sneak peek," but don't think there weren't a number of women who saw Williams' form-fitting shorts and thought: "So, where do I measure up?" In fact, when I saw what Williams wore, I immediately looked over my shoulder and stared downward, hoping that I was at least in the ballpark.

The same can be said for those men who snuck a look at the photos of Oden, Sizemore, Holmes or Hill. Their photos could crush many a man's self-confidence. I have been a sports reporter for more than a decade and spent a lot of time in men's locker rooms. And while there's this stereotype about how female reporters behave in that setting, I can say from personal experience that when it comes to discussing an athlete's physical attributes, a lot of my male colleagues were as descriptive as the women on "Sex and the City."

It's one thing to marvel at an athlete's spectacular athletic accomplishments and physical prowess, but let's also not pretend there isn't a part of the human consciousness that secretly hopes we can measure up to them in some way.

We want them to be mortal, to have pimples, love handles, cellulite. Because if they're not, what hope do the rest of us have? Isn't there a certain amount of delight in the aging and ballooning of retired athletes? Why should they be allowed to be handsome, hot and rich?

Inadequacy -- real or imagined -- breeds curiosity and resentment. Some of the same people who have criticized Williams for what she wore at the French Open also wish they shared her physique and self-confidence. And many of those who condemned the pro male athletes for taking naked pictures probably secretly feel dejected because they realize they are separated by more than just a bank account.

Size matters, especially when it comes to our imaginations.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.