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Praising Simone Biles at her breaking point is not dealing with mental health

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Two days after she stunned the world by dropping out of the Olympic team gymnastics competition citing concerns for her mental health — she later withdrew from the all-around event — Simone Biles tweeted her gratitude for the groundswell of support that had made her realize, “I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”

It was largely received with relief — a sign that a new, uplifted chapter was starting in the Simone Biles: Legend, Hero, GOAT story. But to me it sounds more like an indictment of everything that surrounds her, and a warning that will almost certainly go unheeded.

You don’t have to look hard to see how Biles’ bravery in Tokyo is already being worked neatly into a narrative that strives at once to tell us how exceptional she is, and how relatable. A testament to her incredible tenacity and a beacon for a culture that badly need to change. Even the praise of her decision often sounds like it’s saying she earned the right to be depressed.

Is it any wonder she finds this sh*t so heavy?

Biles has not been struggling silently. Among her most captivating traits is her bold candor in the face of increasingly agonizing circumstances. And if you were obtuse to the ways in which the past five years in USA Gymnastics and the world must have affected her, she was willing to spell it out.

“At one point I slept so much because, for me, it was the closest thing to death without harming myself,” she told Vogue about the time between when the details of Larry Nassar’s abuse started to come to light and when she admitted, to herself and publicly, that she had been a victim.

She tweeted, “numb is becoming a normal feeling,” after revelations that USA Gymnastics had willfully concealed Nassar’s abuse.

What was the happiest time of her career? “Honestly, probably my time off,” she told the New York Times just recently.

Simone Biles is remarkable, but it's a sign of America's harmful stance on mental health that  she had to reach her breaking point at the Olympics. (Photo by Wang Lili/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Simone Biles is remarkable, but it's a sign of America's harmful stance on mental health that she had to reach her breaking point at the Olympics. (Photo by Wang Lili/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Evidently, those revelations didn’t merit the kind of feedback that let Biles realize her value as something more intrinsic than an icon and an entertainer. Instead we forged ahead with what was supposed to be the Simone Biles Olympics. And we didn’t turn the spotlight off when the pressure got to be too much. People love her for prioritizing her mental health, as long as she does it on an international stage. She can come down off the podium, as long as she stays up on the pedestal.

Don’t worry, the only thing America loves more than a champion is a martyr. All the better if you can be both.

There’s something so perverse about a culture that will canonize Biles for finally declaring that she’s had enough, only after forcing her to put up with so much. I’m not sure why setting this precedent is supposed to look like progress. Maybe someone benefits from not aspiring to more as a society, but it’s not the people who will have to follow in Biles’ back-breaking footsteps to find relief.

This is exactly what Simone Biles needs right now. But for the rest of us, it should serve as a wake-up call, not a blueprint. I have absolutely no faith that it will.

We want to think that celebrities speaking openly about their own mental illness is the solution to the growing crisis because it’s simpler than confronting the radical structural changes that might make it easier to address these issues preemptively — for everybody equally.

Our society valorizes mental illness when it serves to underscore a successful person’s grit and willingness to work themselves to a breaking point. Reaffirming that Biles is the GOAT now that we have a gut-wrenching televised testament to just how much she’s been pushing through is not the same thing as having compassion for suffering. It’s not a real reckoning with the disdain for weakness that’s woven into the very fabric of our culture.

Simone Biles herself isn’t weak — in case the gold medals and muscles didn’t make that clear, Twitter has been rightfully cataloging the incredible strength she’s shown throughout her career, and that includes living under the incredible weight of the public eye. But the people whose mental illness keeps them from rising to the top of their chosen fields are no less deserving of the opportunity to take care of themselves.

I can’t stop wondering whether Biles would have gotten the same outpouring of validation that she’s worth more than her medals if she had retired six months ago. Or had avoided the sort of vulnerability under the microscope that made her so beloved and exposed. What if she had never made it to the Olympics? I can’t stop wondering whether it’s even true, whether any of us are actually worth more than our accomplishments. In this economy? I don’t feel that way. Do you?

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