This week, American gymnast and four-time Olympic gold medallist Simone Biles withdrew from Thursday’s individual all-round gymnastics final in Tokyo. In her statement, the 24-year-old said she wanted “to focus on her mental health”. It comes after women’s tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open last month to preserve her mental health, a decision that drew criticism from right-wing commentators, who claimed that the four-time Grand Slam champion was “playing the mental health card to avoid legitimate media scrutiny”.
While the pressure for athletes to bring home gold medals can cause a considerable strain on their physical and mental health, the pressure is even higher for Black women. Not only do Black women have to battle against patriarchy and racism, but also societal, familial and cultural pressures.
For Black women, watching Osaka and Biles quit everything to put themselves first has been empowering. It’s a step towards rebutting against the “strong Black woman” trope and “Black excellence” terms that can cause imposter syndrome, poor mental health and unrealistic expectations.
Below, we speak to three young Black women about what it meant to quit their careers to prioritise their mental health.
Billie Dee, 31, East London
“My mum is Trisha Goddard, the first Black woman on Australian TV. She has also had her own self-titled TV shows in the UK and USA. Growing up, I was always aware of my immense privilege – my parents made sure of that. But at school, if I didn’t get straight A’s on every report, even if I got a B, I was punished. My parents made me feel like I had no excuse. If I wasn’t the best, I was squandering my advantages and was called selfish. It didn’t matter if I was top of the class, my parents kept reminding me I was competing with the world. If my mum could become so successful with only a sliver of the advantages I had, I felt like I had no excuse. To achieve anything less than she did would surely mean my life was a failure.
In 2018, I secured an £80k job at a top law firm. I was one of the only Black people in the company. Everyone knew who my mother was and I felt an immense pressure not to fail. I was great at my job, but I felt like nothing I did was enough. I started drinking and my mental health deteriorated. And if my performance at work dipped, I spiralled.
In summer 2019, I had declined so much I felt I could barely function. I took two weeks off for my mental health. As soon as I returned to work, feeling ashamed, I handed in my notice. But I felt disdain from everyone. I felt guilty – my mother, through her breast cancer, her mother’s death and mental health issues, never took a day off.
Quitting was the best decision. I’m so proud of myself for leaving. Prioritising my wellbeing over making money for people who ultimately didn’t care about me gave me a big boost of self-esteem and self-empowerment. Simone and Naomi, to me, are the exact role models Black women need right now. They are showing this generation that true power comes from self-love and that Black women no longer need to kill themselves for others’ profit, care or entertainment. They know they are elite, they know they are superior and that is enough. That is true Black power. I think they are amazing.”
Teeyana Aromi, 27, London
“I pursued a career in TV production after I graduated from Bournemouth University in 2016. It was a career I had always dreamed of since the age of 15 and I knew it would be the path I would go down. While a lot of it at the beginning was very tedious, I still enjoyed it. But it soon went downhill. I was treated unfairly and very differently to my white peers. I didn’t leave because I wanted to stick it out. And I did. I worked for various TV production companies and worked behind-the-scenes on one of Britain’s most popular talent shows. At one company, I had a boss who micromanaged me so much she made me feel as though I was incapable of doing my job.
One thing I know for certain is that I am confident and able to get things done. I’ve always been a doer. My mum has always told me that I have to work ten times harder than my white peers and that is something that has always stuck with me. But I’ve had to defend myself in a lot of situations. A lot of the time, I suppressed my feelings and ignored the gaslighting. At one point, my manager’s behaviour would leave me crying in the toilets. I would bawl my eyes out before being able to address her email.
I quit the job in December 2020 to prioritise my mental health and decided to quit the industry altogether. I had no idea what to do moving forward, nor did I have any plans. I’m now a content creator, but I have lost my income. However, I’d rather do what makes me happy and be in a place where I can be 100 per cent by myself and authentic than be in an industry and environment that doesn’t give a shit about me.”
Melissa Reynolds-Lawrence, 30, West Midlands
“Quitting my job was both an exhilarating and bittersweet moment for me. In 2017, I started my position as a part-time copywriter for a very small agency. I had seven years experience behind me when I joined – I wasn’t new to my craft. I was made to feel like a valued member of the team, but over time, it became obvious that this role wasn’t going to work out. By April 2018, I had had enough. I was burnt out, annoyed and fed up. I felt bullied at work and I was treated differently compared to my peers. My bosses claimed that I was “rude” and my body language meant that some team members found it difficult to give me feedback. When I asked those team members about this, they were shocked as they’d said no such thing. There was a complete disregard for my wellbeing at this time and it was making me extremely unhappy.
I knew that I couldn’t afford to quit my job outright, so I started putting feelers out for freelance opportunities. Eventually, I secured a temporary position covering someone’s annual leave cover at an agency. I worked there for four days, made the equivalent of my month’s pay and then quit my job.
The difference between myself, Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles is that I needed to create my safety net first. I had financial ability to consider, while they have wealth. However, I understand the pressure – they have to think about the possible impact on their careers, public perception and their reputations. There will always be some fallout when it comes to Black women and the actions they take to protect their mental wellbeing. We’re already up against the notion of ‘Black Excellence’, no matter what industry you’re working in. There will always be a higher expectation and we’re not always celebrated for looking after our mental health.”