Olympics 2021

Simone Biles Showed Us How To Be Gentle To Ourselves, And It Means So Much

“Nobody is entitled to the labors of marginalized people.”

by Nylah Burton
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

When Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics in July citing mental health as her reason, many people were shocked. But they really shouldn’t have been — Biles was dealing with the overwhelming pressure of both Olympic competition and the public eye as a sexual abuse survivor. What’s more, Biles found out while in Tokyo that her paternal aunt had died.

Still, some people didn’t have compassion for Biles’ mental health. They weren’t just surprised, they were angry. Right-wing media outlets called the Olympian “weak,” “arrogant,” and selfish.

But Biles also had a lot of support, especially from people of marginalized genders, many of whom were Black, too. People pointed out the tremendous pressure to be perfect and called out the backlash that comes from a racist, misogynistic, and transphobic society when a Black woman chooses to prioritize herself.

Soon after Biles withdrew at the last minute from the gymnastics team final on July 27, she said the issue was the “twisties” — basically, her mind not connecting to her body, causing her not to be able to perform the extremely dangerous moves she does. She ultimately withdrew from three of the four individual events for which she qualified before reentering the balance beam competition and winning bronze.

Biles hasn’t decided whether returning to the Olympics in 2024 is the best thing for her. “I think I have to relish and take this Olympics in, and kind of recognize what I've done with my career because after 2016, I didn't get to do that,” Biles told the Today show’s Hoda Kotb on Aug. 4. “Life just happens so quickly, and now I have a greater appreciation for life after everything that's happened in the last five years.”

That’s revolutionary. She’s more than her sport; it doesn’t define her. Biles, by standing up for herself, set an example for so many young people who feel like they can’t say no. The hard truth is that it’s difficult to protect yourself when you’re not a white cisgender man. People don’t hear you, or they choose not to. They push you until you break.

Shontel Cargill, a licensed therapist and assistant clinic director from Thriveworks in Cumming, Georgia, tells Elite Daily that Biles inspired her. “As a Black woman and licensed marriage and family therapist, witnessing Simone Biles say no and put her mental health first, on the Olympic level, was a major win.”

Cargill says she hopes Biles’ stance will help other people. “Being on a platform as large as the Olympics magnifies the impact of her protecting her mental health, inspiring other Black women, girls, and athletes [to show] that it is OK to make yourself a priority. I applaud her for her bravery and courage, but most of all, I congratulate her for choosing herself and taking a revolutionary step that hopefully inspires all athletes to prioritize their mental and physical health.”

Elite Daily spoke to 15 people — including athletes and people who experience mental illness — about what Simone Biles taking care of herself means to them. Based on what they had to say, it’s clear Biles won’t just go down in history for being one of the greatest gymnasts ever. She’ll be remembered for inspiring an entire generation to stand up for themselves.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Ashley, 19, Georgia

The way society is set up, we are not gentle with ourselves, and that needs to change.

So many young Black women, myself included, will take on many tasks to make sure the people around me see me as a “strong” and “dependable” person. But I need a break to myself because who am I to give my all when I’m not even at my all? I feel like a lot of people were upset at Simone Biles’ decision because they projected their own bitterness and regret for not standing up for themselves. But we have to stand up for ourselves and return when we are better — the same way Biles returned when she was ready.

Sam, 23, Michigan

I’m a nonbinary trans man, Jewish, and African American. I’m a graduate student and my whole life, I have struggled with my mental health; I have been diagnosed with ADHD, BPD, and C-PTSD, all of which can make it incredibly difficult to thrive in an academic setting. At the same time, these conditions make separating who I am as a person from the work that I am able to do incredibly difficult.

Seeing everything that Simone Biles has said and done this summer made me realize that I am so much more than the ways that I can be impressive, that my accomplishments mean very little if I destroy my mind and body trying to complete them, that nobody is allowed to tell me what to do with my life besides me. In addition, both Simone and myself have been on the receiving end of sexual violence, and I felt so much less alone.

For so long, I felt like I wasn’t worth anything if I wasn’t meeting other people’s expectations of me, and now it feels like it’s OK for me to say, “No, I don’t want a Ph.D. (right now),” “No, I do not want another master’s.” If Simone Biles can take time to heal and work on becoming her best self, then so can I.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Kelisha, 18, New York

It’s refreshing to see Simone Biles say no. As someone who struggles with mental illness, seeing her take a break to take care of her mental health is inspiring. It helps take away the shame. I feel less alone. I felt guilty and embarrassed for wanting to take time to myself and not being able to do what was expected of me due to my mental health issues. Biles doing this sets an example for others like me to know that it’s OK to take time for yourself. It validates the feelings of people who struggle with mental illness everywhere. Thanks to her, I made the decision to take a break from school, and I feel less ashamed for it.

Arijan, 21, Idaho

I can’t help but be disappointed — yet not surprised — in this country's sense of entitlement to the labor of Black women. I can't imagine looking back over these past couple years, seeing Black Americans putting their safety on the line to protest the murder of George Floyd, and then acting as if this country deserves any of its Black Olympians. Nobody is entitled to the labors of marginalized people. Simone Biles does not exist to entertain the masses. She's a gymnast, and she loves what she does. Where in that equation does it mean she's required to put herself in danger?

G, 25, Ontario, Canada

It is amazing to see a high-performing woman like Simone Biles publicly admit that it’s not in her best interest to continue. Having the courage to step down from such a grand stage and admit that she is struggling is something most people could not do. I’m Asian, and I also suffer from mental illness and have familial and cultural pressure to succeed, which is nothing compared to the expectations the world had of Simone. It took me many years to admit that I needed help. My own mother, who just thinks that to live is to suffer, told me to just keep pushing through my degree when all I wanted to do was die. It is unfair to put another burden on Simone, but she is helping pave the way for public discussion of mental illness, and teaching us how to honor our bodies telling us “enough is enough.”

Iyanna, 23, North Carolina

As a Black woman, I have always felt the burden of trying to be perfect. If I could just be strong enough, smart enough, feminine enough, more palatable, then I could possibly be seen, and maybe even tolerated by the world around me. I grew up trying to fit myself into white spaces; I lived in the suburbs in San Diego, and I played piano, practiced voice, and was a ballet dancer. As I tried to maintain a facade of perfection, I struggled with my own mental health but refused to let the mask slip.

Biles’ decision to prioritize her mental health is incredibly meaningful to me. It’s like a statement to the world that it’s OK for me, and all Black women, to be vulnerable and soft. It has created this feeling of letting go of a burden that I didn’t even realize I was still carrying, and for that I thank her. I’m proud of Simone Biles, not because she’s incredibly strong, but because she has allowed herself grace, and forced the world to see the humanity within her. That’s granted others, like me, the grace to acknowledge the humanity within themselves.

Claire, 24, Melbourne, Australia

No is a powerful word. It is too often ignored when said by women, particularly women of color, and particularly Black women. To see Biles say no for herself, for her own safety, for her well-being (on the most anticipated, high-pressure international stage for gymnastics) is a powerful thing. To reshape the athlete from ever-eager, constantly competitive, and always ready to put their body on the line at the altar of sport, to a person who can and does say no, reminds us that we are not inherently entitled to their performances, their risks, their bodies. That, on the occasion we have the privilege to watch a woman fly is a gift. That she may say no, that she may choose when to defy gravity — that is also a gift.

Elie, 24, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom

I've lived with depression and anxiety for a long time but very rarely do I actually say when I’m struggling with mental health. Seeing these high-profile athletes speak more openly gives me hope that in future I won't need to hide this part of myself for fear of being seen as unreliable, selfish, or weak.

Biles has been open about her ADHD diagnosis and the fact that she takes medication for it, an openness I respect her for. Both ADHD and mental illness are hugely stigmatized and — here in the United Kingdom at least — medication for them is often seen as weakness or giving up. It's not true, and Simone Biles shows us that. I hope she knows how much her determination to do right by herself is helping other young people around the world.

Kaela, 19, North Carolina

As gymnasts, we spend our time defying the laws of gravity, and as such we are expected to defy our bodies’ need for rest as well. So for Simone to stand up and say “Actually, I’m not going to put my life and body in danger for a medal” is groundbreaking. It can and hopefully will change gymnastics forever.

As a Black woman, I often feel like I simply can’t take a break. That mentality of “just keep pushing” is what ultimately landed me in a psych ward and forced me to withdraw from college. If I had seen someone like Simone do what she did earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have kept pushing myself until I broke. On the other hand, the initial backlash Simone received, especially from white people, reminded me of why I felt the need to push in the first place. If Simone Biles, arguably the greatest athlete of my generation is not allowed to rest, then what chance do ordinary Black women like myself have?

Rachel, 24, California

Simone's choice to draw boundaries for herself was surprising and definitely a step forward when it comes to competitive sports — I burned out from figure skating when I was 12. By then, I had already learned that the pervasive culture of competition demands your body and denies you boundaries. I hope that more athletes feel allowed to take breathers like that, but I also wonder if the usual ethos of being willing to kill yourself for the art means that Olympians tend to be the type who've never said no before. I wonder what a world of competitive sports might be like if we value the athletes' own lives more, and don't expect them to retire at 25 with broken bodies.

Lucy, 22, New York

I think what was most important was seeing Simone Biles make her own way out. She had surrounded herself with supportive people: a coach who supported and advocated for her, a team that was able to step up and fill in what she couldn’t finish. None of that can be taken for granted in gymnastics given the abusive history (and often, present) of the sport and the way the United States treats Olympic gymnasts as national darlings.

Young women are so rarely given agency. It was really unique and important to see someone so talented, and who plays such a big role on a global stage, creating agency of her own.

Devi, 24, Pennsylvania

There were a thousand reasons for Simone Biles to choose to walk away, and every single one is valid. The fact Biles felt the urgency to keep competing as a survivor of sexual violence so the USA Gymnastics organization would feel the need to hold people accountable for Larry Nassar's abuse is sickening. The fact she finally said no to an organization that did not protect her or other women is a medal won in so many women athletes’ eyes and definitely in mine.

Allie, 24, Pennsylvania

I was so happy to see Simone take care of her mental health and bring that awareness to the world stage. I struggle with mental health and find it so hard to say no sometimes, so seeing an Olympian set the example has been exponentially helpful in my own mental health journey. I’m glad she’s exploring going to therapy, as I think everyone should. It is so important to have a neutral party to talk and work things out with. She is truly inspiring in all she does and handles everything with grace and courage.

Grace, 19, Missouri

Black athletes are expected to perform their best and give themselves to their respective sports with no regard for their own health, whether it be physical or mental. Seeing this racially and gender-oppressed person so confidently refuse something that everyone thinks she should simply be grateful to be a part of in the first place is extremely empowering. I carry those same identities, so if she can demand her respect and demand her health and wishes be honored regardless of what's at stake, so can I.

Q, 22, Massachusetts

I've been doing gymnastics for 17 years and it is so rare to be able to say no. Your body is saying, “Maybe I shouldn’t do that,” because there is a very real possibility of danger, but people make you feel like it's an overreaction, or a foolish thing to feel.

I broke my ankle on a beam dismount when I was 15. My coach said, “It's just an extra half twist, you can do it.” Now I have two screws in my body and visions of the worst possible scenario every time I get up on a beam.

Simone Biles demonstrated the most intense form of self-care and self-advocacy. I could only dream to be as strong as she is. I wish for her own sake that she could have done it without the spotlight and backlash of the entire world watching, but she set a revolutionary example for gymnasts, athletes, women, and Black people everywhere.