The other day, Simone Biles, largely considered the greatest gymnast of all time, withdrew from the team all-around competition in the Tokyo Olympics. A day later, she withdrew from the individual all-around competition as well.
While I felt sad that she was struggling with mental health issues, I’m glad she opted to take care of herself and that she had the support of her coaches and teammates.
I’ve spent most of my life thinking about perfectionist cultures — the first few decades living (and struggling) with it, and the latter decade learning to just be a perfectly imperfect human being.
Whether Simone Biles will still be considered the greatest gymnast of all time, time will tell. What is indisputable is that she is a human being.
My guess is that Simone Biles is reconciling her own battles with perfectionist culture.
There will be some people who say Biles should have sucked it up, that she failed, that she let down the country.
Let’s keep in mind that she is 24 years old. She has more Olympic and World Championship medals (31) than she has had birthdays.
That’s 31 more medals than you and I have earned for our respective countries. And 31 more than the people criticizing her have earned for their own countries too.
The problem with perfectionist culture is that 99.999% of the time, no performance is good enough.
As Biles amply demonstrates, it is a tough way to live.
The problem with seeing Biles only as a gold-medal-winning machine is that it strips her of her humanity and objectifies her.
Objectification is when we see someone (or ourselves) being defined solely based on what they (or we) can produce.
It doesn’t allow for one to have feelings, struggles, and needs of their own… it doesn’t allow room to be human.
Elite cultures tend to have a higher degree of objectification.
Ivy leagues universities suffer from this — a high degree of perfection expectations, a high degree of objectification of self/others, and not surprisingly, a high degree of mental health challenges (often hidden).
I’ve been struggling to think of what I would call the opposite of perfectionist culture.
From a grammar standpoint, the term would be “imperfectionist” culture. Ironically, my spell checker tells me that imperfectionist isn’t actually a word in the English language and must be a typo.
The best word I can think of is acceptance.
The opposite of perfection is acceptance.
The opposite of self-perfection is self-acceptance.
The opposite of expecting perfection from others is to accept others as they are.
The opposite of others expecting perfection from you is others accepting you as you are.
Simone Biles has been an incredible role model to countless gymnasts. She is now an incredible role model for what it means to be human and to accept one’s limitations.
I hope she is able to reconcile her feelings within, and she does what is best for herself. If she can find joy in gymnastics and compete, I would love to see her perform.
If she needs to continue to take care of herself by not competing, I fully honor, respect, and support her choices.
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