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Simone Biles and the power of a woman's voice

Simone Biles warms up before competing in the

Simone Biles warms up before competing in the U.S. Classic gymnastics competition in Indianapolis, Saturday, May 22, 2021.  Credit: AP/AJ MAST

The awesomeness and Black Girl Magic that is Simone Biles had the perfect response when asked why she keeps performing such difficult moves, including the recent Yurchenko double pike: "Because I can."

She promised to keep pursuing such bold moves, despite lower scoring by judges who may be concerned about the danger of pushing to such heights, but also likely don’t want Biles to get too far ahead of the rest of the field. Good for her for refusing to hold back, allow her talent to be diminished and be put in her place. She is among the female athletes who is pushing against the pigeonhole that organized sports like to stuff them in. Biles has proved she can reach new bounds — the Yurchenko double pike had never been attempted before by a woman in competition — and shouldn’t be punished for it. She should be elevated and celebrated.

The petite fireball of a gymnast is giving other female athletes a lesson in fearlessly resisting the status quo, but with grace and dignity. I hope it inspires other women to speak their minds as well. A month earlier she took another stance, dropping an endorsement deal with Nike in favor of the women-friendly Athleta brand. Nike has been criticized for a toxic culture that is not supportive enough of female athletes, including not offering sufficient maternity protections until being publicly embarrassed.

"Using my voice has been very empowering for me, and I am grateful to embark on this new journey with Athleta to inspire young girls and women to do the same," she said in a statement.

Other female athletes have also discovered that empowerment. Three members of the German women’s team at the recent European Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Switzerland wore unitards that covered their legs, rather than the more skin-baring ones that are typical, in a statement against "sexualization in gymnastics." Male gymnasts typically wear long pants or loose-fitting shorts; why can’t women have that choice as well?

"In our opinion, every gymnast should be able to decide in which type of suit she feels most comfortable — and then do gymnastics," said Elisabeth Seitz, one of the gymnasts.

Then there was the women’s basketball player that made the NCAA scramble after speaking about unequal weight rooms at the women’s basketball tournament in San Antonio in March, compared to that used by the men in Indiana. Literally overnight a single rack of dumbbells was replaced with a variety of other equipment. Other inequities came to light as well, including the type of tests used to see if players had COVID-19, swag bags players received and food choices. The NCAA has since said it is conducting an independent equity analysis of all championships.

This is what happens when women’s voices are elevated. Change will occur, and sometimes swiftly thanks to the rapid-fire spread of criticism made possible in this social media era. Too many women still deal with sexism and old ways of thinking that should have disappeared a generation ago. Just look at what happened to female students at Bartram Trail High School in St. Johns, Florida: Their photos were altered in the high school yearbook to cover up cleavage in a ridiculous display of body shaming. Girls were made to feel embarrassed and unproud of their natural bodies in a "Handmaid’s Tale" kind of way. There is nothing wrong with the female body, no matter the shape and size, and we need to stop making people feel like there is. Just as the German gymnastics team didn’t want girls to feel sexualized, those who want to show their bodies should be able to do so as well. The point is: It’s their choice, and no one else’s opinion matters.

I thank all the girls and woman who have the strength to speak up — whether it be a high schooler in Florida or a high-profile figure like Simone Biles. It is these voices collectively that will spark change. Incremental changes spurred by these small movements will eventually add up to broader change. At the end of the day, a new gym at a tournament is one step, but far from good enough. We must ask ourselves what the systemic equities were that existed that made it OK to give college athletes a gym no better than a high school. What is it about gymnastics that discourages women to be their best? I know Simone Biles will not let the last question go.

Andrea K. McDaniels is The Baltimore Sun’s deputy editorial page editor.

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