When I was seven, I took a trip with my family and friends to China. The trip could only be two weeks because my friend Lee, who was nine, had to get back to New York to train.
Lee danced with her white sneakers on the uneven grey bricks that made up the Great Wall of China. She had a whistle and a fanny pack. She sashayed into the Forbidden City like the palace was made for her. Most entrances in historical places had a red or gold entrance bar at each door opening. She would gracefully leap over the doorsill while I struggled with my short legs. I would — gasp!— step atop the bar — a taboo, disgracing everyone who saw me.
The toilets in China are squatting toilets. If you’ve never had the pleasure of using one, your life is rather unadventurous. At seven, my legs struggled to hold my weight while I was trying to practice the most basic of bodily functions. It’s very difficult to ask one part of your body to relax, the other part of your body to hold you up, all the while in fear of accidentally falling into the toilet. Lee had no such problems; she was coordinated and even had napkins in her fanny pack for such purposes.
My fanny pack was filled with candy.
After the two weeks, my family, friends, and I took the twelve hour flight back to America. Lee* was anxious, not sure if she should sleep, or not sleep, and if she did sleep, when? China and Eastern America are in completely opposite time zones. I imagine that it must be very difficult to have the trajectory of your entire life decided by your childhood self, to maintain it and contemplate later, the impossibility of a fantasy.
There was a layover in Chicago. Lee had to take a flight to New York while my family took a flight to Connecticut. I don’t know if she made it back to her training on time.
At nine years old, she was training to become an Olympic ice skater.
The Summer 2021 Olympics are now over. I am no longer seven. Lee is no longer nine. I haven’t used a squatting toilet in three years. Lee is no longer training to become an Olympic ice skater.
I no longer have a fanny pack, but instead a backpack which currently holds a jar of marshmallow fluff. Some vices don’t change.
Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic all-round competition. Naomi Osaka also withdrew from tennis. Both women are people of color who are stars in their field. Simone Biles has not lost an all-round competition since she was sixteen. She is now twenty four.
The German gymnastics team decided to wear unitards instead of leotards, to protest the sexualisation of female athletes.
The Grammy award-winning musician, Pink, offered to pay the Norwegian Beach Handball team their dress code fines. Instead of bikini bottoms, the team decided to wear shorts.
I cannot help but make the connection that all these rules and regulations go beyond utility and sport performance: they are working to establish and maintain the aesthetic status quos of the feminine. Of course, some of these regulations are reasonable: one should wear the “appropriate” garments for the occasion. However, these are Olympic athletes who know what they are comfortable in and what they can perform in — yet their bodies and wardrobes continue to be dictated and policed by everyone.
Michael Phelps is the face of online therapy provider TalkSpace. He advocates for taking your mental illness seriously.
Simone Biles, however, is not taken seriously by advertisers when her breaking point occurs. Naomi Osaka, who is also a woman of color, has to advocate for herself as well. We all know that the further you are from being a white cisgender able-bodied heterosexual male, the more adversity you will experience. Women of color, specifically Black women, will experience it the most. Simone Biles is a great example of that.
I think about my friend, Lee. At nine, her childhood was already over. She had become a mini adult with a fanny pack filled with money and napkins. Our trip to China was cut down to two weeks due to her training. Further trips to China with her were always the maximum of two weeks. She went to California to train when she was sixteen. She struggled with balancing her athleticism, social life, education, and mental health. In her early twenties, she quit the sport.
We expect children to be gods, and are disappointed and betrayed when they turn out to be yes, fault-filled humans like everyone else. This covert contract is not helpful for society — especially to the girls who become ambitious adolescents who become independent take-no-shit women.
And when these women step out of their sport for a moment or forever, it isn’t their fault. The fact that Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka can exist as accomplished athletes is most certainly a testament to themselves, not the industry. The fact that Lee left the professional ice skating world is not a personal failing. All of these outcomes are a natural response to an event — the Olympic Games — which puts young people on pedestals while often denying them their basic needs.
We continue to see people, particularly young women, claiming their space, their career trajectories, and their bodies, in the way they present themselves, dress, and choose to participate in or step out of a system that was never designed to fully support them. That is the way to creating real change which will hopefully result in fewer shortened childhoods and more liberation experienced by the athletes who are representatives and stars of their own countries.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual.
“Fashion and Sportswear Technology at the Olympics.” TheFashionSpot, 27 July 2016, www.thefashionspot.com/runway-news/705045-fashion-and-sportswear-technology-at-the-olympics/.
Hauser, Christine, and Maggie Astor. “The Larry Nassar Case: What Happened and How the Fallout Is Spreading.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/sports/larry-nassar-gymnastics-abuse.html.
Macur, Juliet. “Simone Biles Is Withdrawing from the Olympic All-around Gymnastics Competition.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 July 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/07/28/sports/olympics/simone-biles-out.html.
Pitofsky, Marina. “Pink Offers to Pay Fine against Norwegian Team for Wearing Shorts Instead of Bikini Bottoms.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 26 July 2021, www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/celebrities/2021/07/26/pink-offers-pay-norwegian-team-fine-wearing-shorts-not-bikinis/5375176001/.
Rich, Motoko. “Critics Pounce on Naomi Osaka after LOSS, Denting JAPAN’S Claim to Diversity.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 July 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/07/27/world/asia/naomi-osaka-olympics-loss.html