Simone Biles and Black women athletes like her don’t owe us perfection

OPINION: Black women like Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams should never feel guilty for putting their mental health first.

Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Serena Williams, theGrio.com
Left to right: Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Serena Williams. (Photo: Getty Images)

I wish a non-somersaulting somebody would part their mediocre lips to say anything negative about Simone Biles withdrawing from the Olympics. 

I mean anything. Cuz me and Simone’s Twitter aunties got time. (Her play cousins in the streets might get in on it too! So please don’t play.

To achieve at the highest of high levels and still be told that you have more to prove is the epitome of ridiculosity. (Yes, it’s a word. A word made to describe this type of foolishness right here). Biles’ ability to continuously compete at a level of excellence while being under such tremendous pressure and stress is a feat in and of itself. 

This world will swallow you whole and then forget you existed if you let them. So no, Simone owes us nothing. She owes herself everything. Good for her for pausing to re-align. She has a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals. Sis deserves a mental health break. 

Similar to Simone, Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open two months ago for mental health reasons is something we should see more of. These are actions we should applaud as examples of how to incorporate balance into our lives for the sake of mental health. We live in such a success-driven society that sometimes we forget we are human. That human part comes first. 

Prioritizing mental health at the top of your career takes courage and an enormous amount of self-love. These ladies should each be proud of being able to recognize that no amount of success is worth their mental health. They put themselves first. Naomi’s upset on Tuesday doesn’t diminish her greatness. Ranked at Number 2 in the world, she stepped onto that court already a winner, and she left just the same. 

Naomi Osaka thegrio.com
(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

We keep buying into this notion that women on these grand stages have something to prove. We somehow believe that they lose some of their greatness the moment they stop being superhuman. Nah. They are flying light years ahead of most people, yet we have the audacity to judge from our couches. The higher they fly, the more perfection we demand. 

Take the buzz surrounding Serena Williams and this upcoming Grand Slam as an example. She is an undisputed tennis phenom. She has changed not just tennis but the sports industry’s relationship with women as a whole. She has broken record after record and created historic wins that motivated not only her, but countless other Black women who came after her. That’s the win. 

Yet, there’s still all of this pressure on her to win her 24th Grand Slam title. Our beloved sis has already shown us that she is one of the baddest to ever do this, yet we act as if she needs to prove more. Of course, I want Serena to win, but she is more than her wins. And even more than wanting her to win, I want her mental health to be in good shape. I want her to play for herself — not for us. With over 22 years in this game, she owes us nothing. 

United States’ Serena Williams celebrates after defeating Romania’s Simona Halep during their quarterfinal match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.(AP Photo/Hamish Blair)

In fact, this world owes her something. All of these women athletes, especially Black women, are owed more for the stress they endure. (All while being underpaid compared to male counterparts). 

Black female athletes continue to perform at levels of damn near perfection while being under the constant ridicule of how their bodies look (Serena is body goals, so make it make sense), their fashion choices (from Flo Jo to Sha’Carri, 40 years of the same bull), their hair (Gabby Douglas came to be great, not impress us with a side ponytail), and now, how they take care of their own mental health (I still have tons to say about Sha’Carri and the Olympics’ unnecessary and controlling rules around marijuana).

Black female athletes endure systemic racism on a consistent basis. (As if the Olympics banning swim caps for “afro” hair is anything but…) And on top of all of that, Black women are bullied for no reason other than the fact that the Megyn Kellys of the world have nothing better to do. 

With all that they have to deal with, I say emphatically to Simone, do what you need to do for you. And don’t ever feel guilty about it. 

Black women are beginning to realize in so many ways that we will not continue to sacrifice ourselves for the world. Putting ourselves first is no longer just an option. It’s mandatory. It’s required. Like eating or breathing. We must prioritize the things that sustain us. Mental health is finally being understood as one of those things. Our lives cannot be a rat race to perfection that acts as a measure of our worth. Perfection is an illusion, and it most certainly cannot come before mental health. 

The invisible, but ever-present pressure that Black people endure is present at all levels of success. The experience of these women on the court translates to what many of us have experienced in our own careers. Yet in a corporate arena, trailblazers who stand up for their own mental health needs often pay for such actions with their careers. 

As a society, we have yet to build a culture that incorporates mental health into the definition of success. We talk about mental health a lot, and we know all the buzzwords. But how much have we actually changed our day-to-day culture around mental health? Not much. 

This is why these actions by women like Simone and Naomi are so important. They are leading by example and giving Black women worldwide a new mantra. One that says, I will not let you swallow me whole while I sit here and starve. 

That right there is the real win. 


Kamaria Fayola, theGrio.com

Kamaria is an attorney, poet, writer, and lover of all things created #ForTheCulture. She runs a blog, ‘Words of My Mother,’ has lived all over the DMV (heavy on the V), and enjoys skating, debating, and car karaoke. (Because, why not?!) She can be reached on Twitter at @like_tha_moon.

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