A woman should be…

USA’s Simone Biles cheers during the artistic gymnastics women’s team final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on July 27, 2021. (Photo by Loic VENANCE / AFP)

In the first week of the Olympics, decorated US gymnast Simone Biles shocked the world and angered entitled white men both States-side and in the UK with what they considered her ‘woke’ attitude.

In the space of a month, she also became the second super athlete to withdraw from a high-profile competition to look after her mental health. Simone herself credited fellow super-athlete Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from the Grand Slam competitions leading up to the Olympics to protect her own mental health for inspiring her to “focus on my mental health.”

When mock outrage poured in from right-wing radio jocks in the US and Piers Morgan’s ilk in the UK, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a slender, white girl in question if their reactions would be any kinder. Because we all saw, the contrasting treatment of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova by the mainstream media for years.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 25, 2021 US’s Simone Biles reacts after competing in the artistic gymnastics balance beam event of the women’s qualification during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo. – Simone Biles withdrew from Olympics all-around gymnastics on July 28, 2021. (Photo by Loic VENANCE / AFP)

In 2016, Moments after five-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova held a press conference to admit she had failed a drugs test, tweets began to emerge imagining how the scenario would have been played out if it was her rival who had been forced to make the confession.

One user tweeted at the time:
Serena Williams (hypothetically): I doped up.
Maria Sharapova: I doped up.
Media: Her honesty is so brave.

Here in the UK, we are no strangers to this narrative – after all, we’ve now had three years of Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex painted as the narcissistic villain to Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge’s damsel in distress, in roles they were cast in by tabloids soon after the UK press realise Megan Markle, Harry’s ‘exotic’ and ‘dusky’ princess was not just a fling but the real deal. Anything from the way she left her baby bump to her love of avocadoes was now fair game. It is no surprise Meghan was the first black woman to openly talk about prioritising her mental health after months of suffering in silence before she walked away from royalty.

Back in the sporting world, we also saw Namibian sprinters Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi become the latest black women athletes ruled ineligible to compete in a race at the Tokyo Olympics due to naturally high testosterone levels.

Their levels exceeded the limit by a World Athletics policy on Athletes with Differences of Sex Development (DSD).

Lori L. Martin, a sociology professor at Louisiana State University said, “We tend to center whiteness. We don’t necessarily think about how the rules that we might implement impact other groups because we’re thinking about whiteness and White people being the norm.”

While it seems black female athletes are heavily targeted both by white-appropriate policies, tabloid press, and racist commentators, white female athletes get their fair share too, as while policies are constructed around White people being the norm, sports etiquette seems to have been designed through the male gaze.

The irony of it all? While the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was recently fined for refusing to play in bikini bottoms during a game in the sport’s Euro 2021 tournament and opting for thigh-length shorts, defeating the reigning Olympics champion China, the Turkish women’s volleyball team were urged by a cleric to observe modesty in dress and behaviour who tweeted:

“Daughter of Islam! You are the sultan of faith, chastity, morality, and modesty not of sports fields. You are the child of mothers who refrain from showing their nose [out of modesty]. Don’t be … the victim of popular culture. You are our hope and our prayer.”

As women, we’ll never truly have freedom as long as we are treated as objects of desire, ridicule, or criticism, and nowhere is this attitude more prominent than the world of sports, where, despite their accomplishments, women are still made to feel like they owe us fans something, whether it is putting their lives or mental health on the line, or modesty or more bare skin.

We will only achieve true equality when men accept that, both on and off the field, a woman can say no and prioritise her mental health, a woman can walk away from trophies if it means keeping herself alive and well, a woman can show as much or as little skin as she would like with or without a dress code, a woman can compete in any sports without having to fit statistics that were never set as the norm with her in mind.

And we are fortunate that these wonderful women are taking a stand as they do because by doing so in the public eye, they give permission for thousands in the public sphere to take a stand where it matters.

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