Today, a friend taught me the term “vulnerability hangover.” A vulnerability hangover is best described as the heavy feelings of regret from opening up and “oversharing.” As women, we often experience vulnerability hangovers from deep-rooted fears of judgment and shame; as a 30-year-old Asian American woman who struggles with vulnerability, I know this feeling all too well.
But today, on the world’s biggest stage, Simone Biles embraced vulnerability and withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics to prioritize her mental health. So far, I have felt hopeful by the amount of support I have seen Biles receive on social media. But I am also extremely disheartened by the people who simply do not get it. Some are calling her weak, soft, selfish. They do not seem to understand that mental health is not something you choose — it is something that takes work and care, something that is as integral to overall health as anything else.
The Los Angeles Times said in a now-deleted tweet that the statement from USA Gymnastics that Biles withdrew for “medical reasons” contradicted NBC’s on-air report citing issues that were “mental rather than physical.” But mental health reasons are a medical issue. Somewhere along the way, society failed to remember mental health is critical to our overall well-being.
I am not a professional athlete. However, I have worked for more than a decade in the sports industry, and I am a woman of color living with anxiety and depression. Sports require so much mental strength that an athlete’s physical well-being is undoubtedly in jeopardy if they are unable to show up as their best self.
The intersection of sports and mental health is something I am passionate about because I can relate — to some extent, of course. Perfection is my downfall. I think people would not typically associate perfectionism with procrastination, but it is a common trait. I would rather not do something at all than do it imperfectly. This applies to my work, my family, my platonic and romantic relationships. It is exhausting. Some days I need to use a sick day or paid time off to recenter myself. And I work behind a desk.
Now imagine being Simone Biles. Imagine being a 24-year-old Black woman representing your country on the world’s biggest stage. Some people will say this is her job and this is what she gets paid to do. I would ask these people — so you have never put yourself first and taken a day off to get your mind right? These same people are calling her selfish. I think she was selfless. Biles had the self-awareness to know she cannot be her best self for her country and her teammates.
“We want to walk out of here,” Biles said. “Not be dragged out of here on a stretcher or anything. So it’s like, got to do what’s best for me, and that was what was best for the team.”
Simone Biles is just one of several Black athletes who have received criticism for speaking out about mental health — Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Naomi Osaka. I challenge their critics to take a real hard look at when they praise the prioritization of mental health and when they do not. Black athletes are expected to compete at the highest level with extreme perfection — and in a country that has systematically oppressed the Black community for 400-plus years and that has held absolutely impossible standards for them.
You cannot pick and choose when you want to support an athlete’s mental health. Mental health is health. Simone Biles put her health first and withdrew from the biggest competition in the world, and her vulnerability needs to be celebrated. I challenge anyone who thinks otherwise to try the littlest bit of vulnerability today. It is scary.
“At the end of the day, we’re human, too,” Biles said. “We have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
Biles’s vulnerability is beautiful. She has taught us all that perfection is not the goal; health is. Now, I hope she does not let herself fall into a vulnerability hangover. Her decision should serve as an inspiration to us all.
Megan Reyes is the director of communications at the sports media network Blue Wire.