This Olympics, Women Are Taking Ownership Of Their Bodies And Minds

Female athletes are competing on their own terms – and it'll help women around the world.

Before they even get near a podium, women are taking a stand at the Tokyo Olympics, putting their minds and bodies before any medal.

The world’s most revered gymnast, Simone Biles, last week withdrew from her scheduled events to focus on her mental health.

“It’s been a long week, a long Olympic process, a long year. We are just a little bit too stressed out. We should be out here having fun,” the 24-year-old athlete said. “It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been taken away from me to please other people.”

And it hasn’t stopped Biles winning yet another medal on her beloved balance beam this week, equalling the highest medal tally of any US gymnast in history.

USA's Simone Biles at theTokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
LOIC VENANCE via Getty Images
USA's Simone Biles at theTokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Meanwhile, the German gymnastics team took a stand against the sexualisation of women in their sport, by wearing full-body leotards to compete, instead of the usual thigh-cut outfits.

“As you are growing up as a woman, it is quite difficult to get used to your new body in a way,” said 21-year-old Sarah Voss, who’s wearing the unitard alongside teammates Pauline Schäfer, Elisabeth Seitz and Kim Bui.

“We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable and we show everyone that they can wear whatever they want and look amazing, feel amazing, whether it is in a long leotard or a short one.”

Sarah Voss (l-r), Pauline Schäfer, Elisabeth Seitz and Kim Bui from Germany stand together after the competition.
picture alliance via Getty Images
Sarah Voss (l-r), Pauline Schäfer, Elisabeth Seitz and Kim Bui from Germany stand together after the competition.

The two, seemingly unrelated events both show women putting their self-worth above the circus. These women, at the very top of their game, are refusing to become a commodity.

And is it any wonder that they’ve had enough? Even before the games started, tales of sexism in sport were hitting headlines.

British paralympic sprinter and long jumper, Olivia Breen, was told her briefs were “too short” by an official at the English Championships last week. Breen has said she was left “speechless” by the negativity, and plans to wear the briefs at the Paralympics next month.

A day later, the European Handball Federation fined Norway’s women’s beach handball team €1,500 (about £1,297) after its players wore shorts instead of bikini bottoms during a match. The men’s team wears shorts as standard.

Olivia Breen, who's set to compete at the Tokyo Paralympics next month.
Ashley Allen via Getty Images
Olivia Breen, who's set to compete at the Tokyo Paralympics next month.

Kate Dale, who leads Sport England’s This Girl Can Campaign, says the Tokyo games represents “a turning point as the most gender-equal games in history,” but we’ve still got a long way to go.

“It’s 2021, yet female athletes are being policed in a way that their male counterparts are not,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Fear of judgement is a major barrier to everyday women getting active – and we’re seeing female athletes at the top of their game experiencing this judgement too.

“That’s why the women taking a stand against sexism at the Olympics sends a powerful message to us all: that all women should be free to exercise and get active wearing whatever they are comfortable in, without fear of judgement or scrutiny. By the 2024 Olympics, let’s hope this is a reality.”

The women forcing change at the Tokyo games seem self-aware, confident, even. But that empowerment has not come over night.

Women in sport have been challenging the dominant narrative that athletes have to push themselves beyond their boundaries for years.

British Olympian Dame Kelly Holmes has long been open about her history of self-harm and depression, previously telling HuffPost UK how she used to hurt herself on a daily basis as a means of coping with the pressure.

Four-time Olympic medal winner, Rebecca Adlington, also shared with us her experience of a decade of online abuse about her appearance, and how it still impacts her body image. More recently, of course, Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open and Wimbledon, stating that she needed time out after experiencing depression and anxiety. British hopeful Emma Raducanu also withdrew from the latter tournament, after being overcome by overwhelm.

The current generation of female athletes have decided enough is enough, ushering in a new era where wellbeing is viewing as just as important as any world ranking.

The women of this year’s Olympics are competing on their own terms, showing women and girls around the world that even at the highest level, sport should be something you do for yourself – and no one else. For that, we applaud them.