When I watched Simone Biles warm up before eventually withdrawing from the women’s gymnastics team event at the Tokyo Olympics last week, the hardest part wasn’t watching her fall out of her vault. It wasn’t even watching her eyes as she clearly lost her sense of where she was in the air.
It was after, when she walked back to her teammates and they asked her if she was OK—clearly sensing that something was very wrong with the woman we all know as the GOAT of women’s gymnastics. But Simone put on a smile (that didn’t reach her eyes) and said two words that sounded too familiar:
How many of us have said those words, knowing they were a lie? How many of us have said them fighting back tears or pushing down anger or pretending we didn’t just have a panic attack in the bathroom?
We say we’re fine because we want to be fine—we want to pretend. But often, we also say we’re fine because we know the alternative—the truth—is uncomfortable. And we’ve been taught for our whole lives that making other people uncomfortable is a lot worse than being uncomfortable ourselves.
So we say we’re fine when we’re not. We try to push through and push down and put on a smile.
And every time we do, we shrink a little bit more so we can fit more easily into the cute little box the world wants to keep us in. Everyone’s box has a different label, but for many of us, our labels all boil down to the same thing—a label we were given when we were too young to understand all that it would ask of us:
A Good Girl is always fine. She never makes a scene, never makes herself the center of attention, never asks for more than what she’s given. A Good Girl takes care of the people around her, and she’s often so busy doing this that she forgets to take care of herself. A Good Girl is self-sacrificial, always putting the needs of others above her own.
A Good Girl is selfless.
Because a sense of self is too big to fit in that tiny box.
In fact, most things about us—our messy complexities that make us human, our rage and unabashed joy and our desires and needs—can’t fit in the box. But to break out of the box—to take up space and ask for what we need and prioritize ourselves—is unthinkable. Because somewhere along the way, we’re taught that being someone else’s idea of good should be the same as being our idea of happy.
So we do whatever it takes to fit in the box—to stay small and quiet and to avoid drawing attention to ourselves as imperfect individuals. Even if that means we feel like we’re suffocating in that tiny space. Even if we have to hurt ourselves to do it.
Because our pain is called beautiful and heroic and admirable and is put on a pedestal for the Good Girls after us to aspire to. It’s given a name—sacrifice—and given a place of honor in the stories told about every Good Girl from the beginning of time.
But Simone Biles wrote a new story—a story of what happens when a Good Girl can’t stay in her box anymore. A story of what happens when staying in her box—when trying to be fine because to be anything besides that would disappoint people—becomes life-threatening. A story of the bravery it takes to be more than Good.
A story of what it means to be Great.
Simone knew she wasn’t fine. She knew her mind was betraying her body—making it so she literally didn’t know which way was up. But she also knew what people would say if she chose her own needs, her own safety, and possibly her own life over meeting their expectations for who she should be and what she should do.
Quitter. Disappointment. Selfish.
The weight of those words sits heavy on a woman’s shoulders, but it’s a good thing Simone Biles is stronger than any of the people hurling them at her.
Because with the eyes of the world watching, she chose herself.
She took care of herself.
She reminded us all that she has a self—and that self is more important than any medals or records or the opinions of those who don’t know her (and even the opinions of those who do).
Simone Biles is a human being—she’s not a symbol or a commodity or a blank slate for people to project their hopes and dreams onto. She’s a grown woman and a trauma survivor, and she doesn’t have to set herself on fire to keep other people warm and comfortable.
As women, we’re often preached to about the importance of self-care, but when the time comes to actively engage in it beyond the bath bombs and journals and coloring books—when the time comes to set boundaries or advocate for our needs or protect our mental health in situations that are triggering—we back away because a Good Girl doesn’t put herself first.
Maybe a Good Girl doesn’t, but a Great one does.
Simone Biles has done a lot of amazing things. She’s set records and had multiple moves named after her and has even changed the way we think about gymnasts’ bodies (as muscular and strong rather than thin and delicate). But the most inspiring thing she’s ever done—the thing that is going to change the most lives—didn’t happen on the mat. It happened when she walked off it.
Because by walking off it—by saying she wasn’t fine and couldn’t push her brain and body beyond their limits—she showed every girl and woman watching what it looks like to break out of the box the world wants to keep you in. She showed everyone that there is something worse than disappointing people—and that’s hurting ourselves to meet the expectations of others. And she showed the world that the best thing you can be isn’t selfless; it’s being full of yourself—so full of your sense of self that you know what you need, you know how to ask for it, and you don’t back down when the world wants to shove you back in your box.
Simone Biles isn’t a Good Girl.
She’s the Greatest of All Time.
And she showed us all that it’s more important to be Great to ourselves than it is to be someone else’s idea of Good.