Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are the role models our girls need, to put their mental health ahead of people's expectations of them.
Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka are the role models our girls need, to put their mental health ahead of people’s expectations of them.
This week, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles—gymnastics’ golden girl and the greatest of all time— withdrew from the U.S.A. gymnastics Olympic final, prioritizing her mental health over her performance.
Yesterday, she also withdrew from today’s all-round competition.
Simone Biles has been open in the past about the tremendous pressure on her, calling it “the weight of the world on my shoulders.” By standing up to the culture of relentless pressure to the point of dehumanizing athletes, Simone Biles needs to be applauded. In showing us who she is beyond an athlete with a case full of gleaming medals, Biles has emerged as a role model, mental health warrior and global icon.
But is mere applause enough? Society needs to vocally defend Biles’ choice of being a cycle-breaker. For standing up against the dominant sporting culture that is the pursuit of perfection at all and any costs, and choosing herself over external expectations.
It is a difficult decision, given how much rests on her. But strength needn’t be tested to the point of breakdown. Strength includes recognising one’s limits and drawing boundaries. It is being aware that there are times when only you will know what’s best for you, and the chorus needs to be drowned out for your own voice to speak up.
Historically, the sporting world has been a largely male-dominated field. From making the rules of sport to enforcing who could participate, men kept a tight leash on ‘their’ arena, only relinquishing their majority control enough to ‘allow’ women entry at appropriate points in history, albeit with strict rules in place. From what they could participate in, to what they could wear whilst participating, women, far from being considered equals, were up against rules not created by them.
A testosterone-soaked field such as sport has long held its contestants to extremely grueling standards of physical and mental endurance. Some may say that that is the whole point. But is it—when one chooses excellence over health? When the pressure to compete and win is greater than one’s sanity?
This culture of intense performance pressure leads to many women in sport pushing their limits to match expectations already laid out for them, rather than being co-creators of rules and structures. In an arena where “What next?” implies the next accomplishment for an athlete, Simone Biles has shown the next generation of athletes what good mental hygiene and healthy choices look like. In creating a safe space for future sportspersons to say “Enough”, she has become a global icon for an entirely different—but equally valid—reason.
Could we hope that the millions of girls, and moreover, girls of colour, who are watching all of this unfold, take inspiration from her and put their own mental health ahead of people’s expectations from them, and not just in the field of sports? That a safe space for themselves, within the rules they want for themselves, is to be chosen over the easy way of conforming to the rules set for them by others?
It can’t have been easy for Biles to bow out at the height of her glory, with the world’s eyes on her. She is a role model with a once-in-a-lifetime shot at going down in sporting history. This 24-year-old, instead, is throwing her heft against an entrenched culture—one which she refuses to obediently play along to, if the rules don’t work for her.
Something Naomi Osaka also did earlier, by preferring to put her mental health ahead. That she would rather forgo the French Open than partake in press conferences that trigger her anxiety and push her mental health buttons. She has spoken out about her depression, and in doing so, thrown open a conversation about prioritizing mental health without the stigma is continues to be associated with.
None of this can be easy, especially after working so hard to get where they are. But like they say, it’s all hard. Just choose your hard.
And to step away from the pinnacle of your hard-fought-for career, and recognise that you are not listening to yourself but just pleasing other people, requires a mass petition to change the term from ‘Herculean’ strength to ‘Simonean’! Perhaps what we needed all along was a woman sports star to show us that the greatest strength lies in places other than our muscles.
All hail champions like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka. May their tribe increase!
Image source: YouTube
Dilnavaz Bamboat's heart occupies prime South Mumbai real estate. The rest of her lives in Silicon Valley, California, where she hikes, reads, hugs redwood trees and raises a pint-sized feminist. She is the read more...
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