Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, and the Revolutionary Power of Black Women’s Rest

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“I try not to think about it because I can’t afford to—if I let them rule me, they’re winning,” Simone Biles said in her Glamour cover story ahead of the 2021 Olympics. If ever there was a quote to describe one of the most common struggles of Black women, Simone Biles hand-delivered it.

The greatest gymnast in history—not just the greatest in the country, or of her gender, but the greatest of all time—told the world that she has no choice but to compartmentalize to keep working while standing up to abuse, hyper aware of the responsibility and pressure on her shoulders. The greatest gymnast in history told us that all of the decorated honors in the world don't protect her. She has to protect herself.

Black women everywhere can relate.

The seed that was planted over a month ago has now grown into Biles's decision to pull out of the gymnastics team final and the individual all-around final at the Olympics 2021. Inspired by fellow super-athlete Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the Grand Slam competitions leading up to the Olympics to protect her own mental health, Biles took a stance that shocked many and left others confused.

Biles’s stepping away didn’t just challenge the status quo—it obliterated it.

But for Black women, her decision resonated on a deeper level. Here we have a woman who made an intentional decision to choose her mental health over more medals, over glory, over the expectations the world had placed on her. “Black womanness sits at the intersection of society's most marginalized identities,” says Duanecia Evans Clark, cofounder of of The Creative Summer Company. “To show up in today's world as Black and woman requires that we are hypervigilant for ourselves and our families. After all of that vigilance, we have no choice but to demand rest of ourselves and the sisters around us.”

In a society that values productivity over humanity, and places superhuman expectations on Black women, Biles’s stepping away didn’t just challenge the status quo—it obliterated it.

Black women are programmed to believe that rest is not for us. “For hundreds of years we have carried the weight of the world on our shoulders,” says Alisha Robertson, an intentional business coach. “We've fought and advocated for those who wouldn't normally do the same for us.” 

So as Biles and Osaka have so bravely exemplified, for Black women, “rest is revolutionary. ”

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“In 2021, rest is more revolutionary for Black women than it ever has been, and for no other reason than we finally have the choice,” says Evans Clark. “Our ancestors fought for this moment. We owe rest to ourselves, but we also owe it to them for the centuries they could not.”

During a time when workplace rules and boundaries are constantly shifting as many of us navigate new realities of remote work or lives as digital nomads, Simone and Naomi are also examples of how Black women are continuing to impact the way we all push back against toxic work environments and the systems that create them.

Rest for Black women is not a trend but a birthright—a revolutionary stance in itself. 

“I worked for a very big sports media company,” says Krissy Brierre-Davis, a business operations consultant. “As a Black woman in that company, I was expected to be on all of the time. It’s almost as if I was placed in certain positions to compete with my coworkers. While my white counterpart was praised for the bare minimum, I worked 24/7 and never received acknowledgement for a job well done. I was burned out.” Ultimately, she decided to leave to save herself, her family, and her sanity. “Unfortunately, many don’t have the ability to do that, but I knew that if I didn’t, I risked losing far more than I was willing to,” she says.

There is a growing movement for the radical prioritization of rest among Black women. Community healers like The Nap Ministry and Erika Totten remind us of the importance of rest. Armed with decades worth of experiences, resources, and tools that lead people to liberation, they teach Black women about the past, the present, and the power of rest. It’s not a trend but a birthright—a revolutionary stance in itself. “When you’re resting, it’s restoring your body so that you do have enough capacity to move on toward your vision,” says Totten via her #ToLiveUnchained sessions on Facebook Live. Or as Tricia Hersey, affectionately known as the Nap Bishop of The Nap Ministry, puts it: “There is never enough rest and leisure for those with a legacy of enslavement. Claim it.”

There has been a growing awareness of the importance of talking about mental health in the sports community in recent years. But Biles’s powerful actions in Tokyo also shine a light on the importance of recognizing the mental health burdens Black women carry. In the Black community, anxiety and depression often go untreated. That means even while working, many of us are suffering in silence and you wouldn’t know it unless you asked—see Osaka’s confession of dealing with depression since 2018 as a prime example. “Taking one’s rest is so vital and revolutionary for Black women because every single day we wake up and proverbially build Rome, often without the proper tools needed or support necessary to solidify a foundation,” says Ru Johnson, cultural strategist at Roux Black. “That takes work. Emotional work, physical work, spiritual work. Black women are working. Every day. At every moment.”

Robertson, the business coach, was recently diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder—a condition that causes severe anxiety and depression every month. As an entrepreneur, a wife, and a mom, she had to make the decision to cut back in her business so that she could prioritize herself. “I still would like to hear more people talk about how protecting your mental health isn't a weakness,” she says. “Just because you need a break or choose to remove yourself for the betterment of your mental health doesn't mean that you're lacking anything. That should be something that is praised and not pitied.”

“There is never enough rest and leisure for those with a legacy of enslavement. Claim it.”

The current cultural conversation around Black and women rest is also revolutionary because it ties into an even bigger discussion about what we need in order to strengthen our communities. While Black women are resting and being examples of liberation by prioritizing their well-being, they’re also ensuring the betterment of our world. “What do we do to hold our women and girls up when the rest of the world won't? How do we make it our responsibility to love and protect each other?” says Evans-Clark. “And not just those of us on Olympic stages, but Black women with and without jobs, the unhoused, Black queer women and femmes. We have some questions to answer within our own homes.”

Stepping away from the expectations of the world may be Biles’s most important legacy. She’s not letting anyone rule her. She is winning. And for the rest of us, Johnson leaves us with this question: “I’d like for folks to ask themselves, What can I do to make life easier for Black women who are carrying so much?”

Melissa Kimble is a Memphis-based cultural writer and strategist, writing and building at the intersection of culture, community, and wellness.

Originally Appeared on Glamour