Simone Biles Is Redefining What Strength Means as a Black Woman—Here's Why That's So Important to Me
As a Black woman growing up in America, rest always felt like a foreign concept—not necessarily sleeping a full eight hours or taking naps, but real mental and emotional rest. So when Simone Biles, one of the most decorated American gymnasts at only 24 years old, chose to withdraw from multiple events during the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, it may have been shocking to some, but it felt revolutionary to me. It's time that Black women follow suit and start prioritizing our mental health, too.
As Black women, we are taught to be strong. Our mothers, cognizant of the harsh and often unfair world we were entering, taught us to prioritize everything but rest as an act of survival. But that so-called badge of honor—the "strong Black woman" persona—may be doing us more harm than good.
In a 2019 research article published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, researchers found that, in the face of racial discrimination, Black women opt to present a "superwoman" front. That means we suppress our emotions, instead choosing to portray ourselves as an image of strength and competence; it's our defense mechanism. But being a "strong Black woman" is both a coat of armor and a liability—it's an outward behavior that doesn't always show how we really feel.
By stepping down, even just temporarily from the Olympic stage, Biles is working to rewrite what strength means in Black women. "I hope that we're able to redefine what it means to be a 'strong Black woman,'" Patrice Berry, PsyD, LCP, psychologist and author of Turning Crisis Into Clarity, tells Health. "It's OK not to be OK," she says. "That doesn't mean that you're crazy, it doesn't mean that you're broken, and it doesn't mean that there's something wrong with you."
It's a tough bridge for many Black women to cross, though—and even talking about mental health "is a huge problem," says Berry. "Whether it's multi-generational trauma, or working in corporate America, which in itself can be very traumatic, we still, by and large, are not the ones having these discussions," she adds.
And even when we do open the dialogue around mental health, or even just show emotions, we, as Black women, are maligned by both spectators and the media. Take Piers Morgan, for example, who called Biles "selfish" for withdrawing from the women's team finals; or radio host Ben Maller, who called Biles the "biggest quitter in sports" on his Fox Sports radio show. But Biles isn't the only example here: Tennis pro Serena Williams received criticism after a rare, emotional outburst during the 2018 US Open (the incident was even made into a Jim Crow-esque cartoon, which was eventually ruled "not racist" by a group of white Australian men.) And more recently, another tennis star, Naomi Osaka, faced disapproval after withdrawing from the French Open in May, citing the need to rest and protect her mental health.
Sadly, these responses aren't even remotely shocking for most Black women. Whether on the tennis court, in the boardroom, or even during everyday life, we're expected to shut up and do the work—and we often do just that for fear of what will happen if we don't. "There's a stereotype of Black women just doing it all, and we should be happy to even have a seat at the table," Alycia Scott, PsyD, a New York City-based clinical psychologist, tells Health.
Stereotypes and stigmas aside, there's something else at play here; something deeper and more troubling about the responses Biles, Osaka and Williams received. "The negative responses are rooted in the dehumanization of Black people and women," says Scott—and that's what I think bothers me the most; being treated as an expendable workhorse instead of a human being that requires rest and compassion. That's a feeling Black women know all too well, and I'd like to remind people: We are human, or, as abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth famously quipped in her 1851 speech "Ain't I a Woman?":
So how can Black women follow Biles' and Williams' and Osaka's lead and prioritize our mental health? "Don't shy away from speaking honestly about your mental state," says Scott. "Speaking things aloud is what loosens the stigma." And if transparency about your mental health isn't possible, take your allotted sick, personal or vacation days. And, probably most importantly, learn and practice the importance of saying "no"—that means no longer taking on every project, deadline, or team leader role that may negatively affect your mental health. "Saying no, to doing the work for others, especially white people, is radical and powerful and we must keep doing it," says Scott.
For Biles, stepping back, even just temporarily, from the Olympics stage showed her that she is much more than her gymnastics record—and Black women everywhere should realize too that they are more than their achievements or accomplishments. Remember: You don't have to be an Olympic or professional athlete to deserve rest, to be gentle with yourself, to take a step back and focus on your mental health and well-being. Black women, I implore you: take a break. Follow the lead of Biles, Williams, and Osaka, and don't just prioritize your mental health, guard it fiercely and unapologetically, because no one else will.
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