Olympic Feminism

On the heels of my recent piece about intersectionality, I’m thinking a lot about Black feminism this week. African American women have been spectacular at this year’s Olympics in Rio, and their strength has been legendary. I wanted to highlight a few athletes as I think about how their example is not only inspiring me, but certainly inspiring a generation of young Black girls who can now see themselves more often on top of that podium.

Simone Biles – she has (now famously) said that she doesn’t want to be referred to as the “next Michael Phelps”, since instead, she’s “the first Simone Biles.” In a Twitter conversation on Friday, 8/12, Franchesca Ramsey was remarking on Biles’ skills and confidence to be able to even make such a declaration. And, naturally, there was plenty of mansplaining and whitesplaining about why Biles should just be so happy to be compared to Phelps, etc. So I chimed in to observe that we really don’t need another Michael Phelps. We have one already. He’s really good. We do, however, need the first Simone Biles. She and her teammate Gabby Douglas have shown the world Black Girl Magic time and again, and thus stand firmly on their own feet, in their own legacy. We don’t need to filter everyone through a white, male prism in order to make them relevant!

There was also another Simone at theses Games, the swimmer Simone Manuel. She is being hailed as the very first ever African American woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal. The barriers she’s breaking down are also remarkable. Swimming pools were (and frankly, still are) racially contested spaces in the United States. You can read more about that at the link in this paragraph. Manuel’s achievement is nothing short of ground breaking.

The third athlete I’d like to discuss is Michelle Carter, subject of this great profile in The New Yorker. She is the first American woman to win a gold medal in shot put, and she did so while looking fabulous. I noticed her during the shot put qualifiers when I was out at lunch and happened to notice a tv playing Oympics coverage. I admired her red lipstick and awesome hair and when I read later she had won the gold, I was so excited! It turns out that she is a professional makeup artist and believes in challenging society’s notions of what women should look like while competing. She sees herself as built for shot put, and she likes to look her best so that she feels confident when she competes. It clearly works.

(And women in track & field have been stylin’ forever, anyway. Remember Florence Griffith-Joyner’s nails? Or Sanya Richards-Ross’ hair?)

Women have to put up with so much garbage about their appearance on a daily basis, and can never win. You have to wear makeup to be taken seriously, but not too much. You really shouldn’t wear any makeup if you’re in a sporting profession or need to be seen as “one of the guys” in order to be taken seriously. If you’re too thin, you’ll appear weak. If you’re too fat, you’ll look unprofessional. Are you  muscled at all? That’s weird. Are you shorter than average, taller than average? Going gray at a young age? Dealing with a disability that might affect your appearance? Just try to hide all that.

That’s why Carter and these other women are so inspiring to me right now. They offer three different models of Black femininity, and three ways of being a bad ass that anyone can look up to.

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