Simone Biles | Sunday Observer

Simone Biles

On a rainy afternoon in March, dozens of tween girls filed into an auditorium at New York’s Lower Eastside Girls Club. They were there to hear Simone Biles talk about beauty standards. She arrived fresh off a plane from Indianapolis, where she had spent the morning training, and the room went bananas when she walked in, a four-foot-eight powerhouse in a color-block turtleneck and blue jeans. She sat on a couch at the front of the room. Her feet, in pearly ankle boots with Lucite heels, barely touched the floor.

Remarks

Biles delivered her remarks in the dutiful and direct way that athletes and coaches give interviews. She loves gymnastics, she said, but not the beauty competition that comes with it: “No matter how good you are in your sport, in life, in work, the number one thing people talk about is how you look.” She urged the girls to handle such pressure by ignoring it. “You’re still going to thrive. You’re going to become somebody amazing and great. You guys are all beautiful, inside and out.” Whoops and cheers all around.

This was, of course, early March, which is to say a million years ago—before the corona virus pandemic all but shut down New York City, before the Olympics were postponed, before it was clear that nobody should be in a confined space with a crowd. The Lower East Side talk was the first of several appearances Biles was making on behalf of the Japanese skin-care brand SK-II. She and a few other Olympians—including the table-tennis player Ishikawa Kasumi, the badminton duo Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo, and the surfer Mahina Maeda—are the faces of an ad campaign that proclaims beauty should be ‘no competition.’

SK-II is a sponsor of the Tokyo games—which, as of this writing, have been postponed until July 2021, unless they are moved again or canceled altogether—but that isn’t the only reason Biles signed on. She is deliberate about her endorsements.

She works with Mattress Firm because the company donates mattresses, pajamas, and bedtime books to foster kids. (Biles spent time in foster care.) The #NoCompetition campaign is similarly personal for Biles, who has faced demeaning and repulsive attacks about her body from spectators, competitors, and relentless online trolls.

It was time for questions. A short girl in a blue sweatshirt that said GOD IS DOPE wanted to know if Biles received rude comments when she began competing. Yes, Biles said: “They focused on my hair.

They focused on how big my legs were. But God made me this way, and I feel like if I didn’t have these legs or these calves, I wouldn’t be able to tumble as high as I can and have all of these moves named after me.” A tall girl with red braids asked Biles how she felt about being a Black gymnast.

Biles nodded. “Growing up, I didn’t see very many Black gymnasts,” she said. “So, whenever I did, I felt really inspired to go out there and want to be as good as them. I remember watching Gabby Douglas win the 2012 Olympics, and I was like, If she can do it, I can do it.”

Hands flew up. How many medals did Biles have? “I should probably memorise this answer, but it keeps changing,” Biles said. “The most!” someone called out. “Yeah, I do have the most,” Biles said. “I think it’s at 25, but I’m not really sure. I would have to google it.” (She has 30.) A girl in the back wanted to know how many injuries Biles had gotten. “I’ve been very fortunate in my career that I haven’t had too many injuries,” Biles said—just bone spurs, a broken rib, toes shattered and cracked. The girls gasped.

Spectre

Another asked, “Do you think you’re obligated to stand up when something bad is going on in society?” The question summoned the spectre of Larry Nassar, the longtime USA Gymnastics doctor who is now serving a sentence of up to 175 years for the sexual abuse of athletes, including Biles. For two years and counting, she has been trying to hold officials in her sport accountable. “Personally, for me, I don’t think of it as an obligation,” Biles said. “I think of it as an honor to speak for the less fortunate and for the voiceless. I also feel like it gives them power.”

Biles posed for a group photo. Then she and her small entourage got into black SUVs and headed for Times Square. Biles rode with her mother, Nellie, a petite woman with a no-nonsense manner and kind eyes. I rode with a team from SK-II. As we flew up FDR Drive, word arrived that, because of the rain,

Biles would not be doing a split leap at the event. (No risking injury.) The group reconvened in a hotel lobby and proceeded to Broadway and Seventh Avenue. Biles, now wearing gray leggings and a cream puffer coat, stood on a platform, enveloped by a growing crowd.

She said a few words, and then an anime film began to play on enormous digital billboards. In it, a small cartoon Biles faced off with a 200-foot-tall monster whose blobby body was composed of comments made about her on social media. As Biles confronted the towering troll, the comments flashed across the frame: “Her calves errrrhmygod.”

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