Is the World capable of extending compassion to Black Women, giving them space to practice self-care? Able to provide support when faced with a Black Woman’s vulnerabilities rather than pressure them towards the Strong Black Woman Stereotype?
Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, two Black Women who compete on the World stage and have, during the height of their careers, expressed their need to practice self-care and dedicate time to their mental health. Both decisions were met with mixed feelings from the media, with most initial reports criticizing both athletes. And even those who expressed support may not understand how they still placed a mantle of responsibility on the shoulders of women who stated they needed a break.
I acknowledge their experiences are two touchpoints in a plethora we could include in the conversation about Black Women, mental health, and self-care; however, their world recognition, both events occurring within the last several months, and the highly visible criticism and support they received position their situations at the center of the conversation.
When Naomi Osaka did not attend her first press commitment at the French Open in May 2021, the French Open Referees fined her $15,000. On May 26, the Wednesday before her first press event and the beginning of the tournament, she shared on her Twitter account that she would not participate in any press. Her tweet begins with, “Hey Everyone- Hope you’re all doing well, I’m writing this to say I’m not going to do any press during Roland Garros. I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”
The Roland Garros officials continued to pressure Naomi to attend the media events surrounding the tournament and threatened additional fines and penalties if she did not do so. On May 31, 2021, before her second-round match, she withdrew from the tournament. She again tweeted her decision, stating, “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players, and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.” She continued to explain she had suffered from bouts of depression since the 2018 Open and struggled to deal with her mental health.
Her departure from the tournament was met with support and also with criticism. The Women’s Tennis Association, Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, and Martina Navratilova all expressed their support for Naomi and her decision to take care of herself, prioritizing her mental health. People like Piers Morgan, Oliver Brown, and Andrew Castle, interestingly all white males, openly criticized and minimized her decision.
Three months later, the world would have a similar discussion when Simone Biles withdrew from some events during the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo for mental health reasons. And according to NPR, Noami inspired her to protect her mental health.
After her vault final in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Simone Biles withdrew from the events in the women’s team final and would also withdraw from all individual events. According to ESPN, Simone withdrew because she no longer trusted herself and later stated she needed to focus on her mental health. After evaluating her mental health day by day, she would return to participate in the balance beams and win bronze.
Similar to Naomi’s decision, Simone’s was met with a mixture of support, mostly once more background information was released; however, in the beginning, when the world seemed a bit baffled, politicians, the average American, and other athletes criticized her and questioned her fortitude as an athlete and, subsequently, as a worthy representative of the United States.
What the World Expects from Black Women
Stereotypes for Black Women have become the world’s expectation for Black Women. Strong, Aggressive, Angry, Superhuman, Magical, etc. are the adjectives used to hold them in a specific box while self-care, mental health, taking a break, stepping back, and vulnerability can’t seem to penetrate the minds of those who have built those boxes for Black Women.
And so instead of being supported, embraced, and understood when taking care of themselves and speaking up for themselves and their needs, Black Women receive backlash and judgment, and even unintentional additional responsibilities. What seems like support can unintentionally become added pressure to still consider others over yourself and be what everyone else needs.
Support vs. Pressure
I see many people providing support to Naomi and Simone. Fans, other athletes, celebrities, and organizations comment on how proud they are of the two of them, how brave they are, and how the world and young women need the example they are setting. When you’ve done something vulnerable, the support you receive afterward encourages you and can help calm any anxiety you may have. I will not discount the power of that. However, there are subtle pressures in continuing the narrative of how what these women decided for themselves, to take care of themselves, impacts and influences others. How they are now an example to others, which they have already been, and how they were “brave”, again a derivative of being “strong”.
These women need support. They do not need pressure, subtle, unintentional, or otherwise. They deserve to be seen and accepted for who they are, rather than who they are or can be to others. Support looks like, “I’m glad they are taking care of themselves and speaking their truth. If they need anything from me, I am there.” It is as simple as that.