Superstar gymnast Simone Biles showed women everywhere what real courage looks like.
In deciding to step away from Olympic competition, Biles set aside the crushing expectations of globally-hyped media attention and prioritized her own wellbeing. Hers was a radical feminist act that will have far reaching, consequential impact for years to come.
Biles was a hero to women and girls long before her decision in Tokyo. Obviously, her total dominance of the sport of gymnastics is one reason – she has redefined the meaning of girl power for millions and redefined excellence in the sport through innovation and astonishing physical power.
But there is also her leadership off the mat, in helping expose the sexual abuse perpetrated by USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and her fight to reform the sport and prioritize the health and wellness of gymnasts. She and her teammates not only helped to expose Nassar’s horrific abuses, something that took extraordinary courage, but they have also held USA gymnastics accountable, forever changing a sport that has a long, sad history of abusing and denigrating women and girls.
The culture of women’s gymnastics has been abusive for decades. The pressure on countless young girls to perform a physically punishing sport at extraordinarily high levels of competition as young children and pre-teens, the restrictive regimens that stunted the growth and sexual health of so many and the relentless push to win no matter what is a dark truth of the sport.
Many of the world’s most decorated gymnasts sacrificed their long-term health, physical and mental, for gold. Kerri Strug’s gymnastics career was ended at 18 when she was pushed by coach Bella Karoli to perform a vault on a broken ankle at the Olympics in 1996 in order to bring USA the gold. Her self-sacrifice is emblematic of the win-at-all-costs culture that Biles rejected in Tokyo. Not surprisingly, Strug tweeted her support for Biles not long after the news of her withdrawal became public.
It’s important to note of course that just a few weeks before the Olympics, it was tennis super star Naomi Osaka who brought global attention to the importance of mental health by withdrawing from Wimbledon to preserve her own mental wellbeing. She endured withering criticism from an array of critics as a result but never backed down emerging powerful and “refreshed” at the Olympics to light the torch at the opening ceremonies.
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What both these powerful, young women of color are showing their critics and the world, is that rejecting the limiting, often sexist expectations of others in favor of preserving oneself has enormous power. They are brave enough and strong enough to believe in themselves – to be true to who they are, and to refuse the crushing, unrealistic expectations that they be ever outstanding, ever perfect, always smiling and beautiful to boot. To be a top athlete of their caliber, especially as women of color, is to carry the weight of the world. At the Olympics, the world’s biggest stage, Simone Biles was strong enough, brave enough and feminist enough to say, no more.
No woman, no matter who she is, should be expected to sacrifice everything to meet the impossible expectations of others. Women have always been asked by society to put themselves second – at work, at home, in relationships and beyond we have been told in subtle and not so subtle ways that we matter less. What Biles did was to reject it all – the pressure, the expectations and a culture that sets up impossible standards for women in every field and discipline. It was exceptionally brave. It was exceptionally feminist. It was exceptionally powerful and a gift to women and girls the world over. And for that we owe her our thanks.
Lauren Leader is Co-Founder and CEO of All In Together, a non-profit non-partisan women’s civic education organization and the author of "Crossing the Thinnest Line, How Embracing Diversity from the Office to the Oscars Makes America Stronger." She tweets @laurenleaderAIT