In case you missed it, world-famous tennis superstar Naomi Osaka was featured prominently in the media last month for withdrawing from the 2021 French Open, the premier tennis clay court championship. Osaka, who had announced earlier that she wouldn’t attend press conferences during the tournament due to mental health concerns, was threatened after winning her first match in straight sets and fined $15,000. In response, Osaka withdrew from the tournament the following day, describing her struggles with anxiety and depression on social media.
Her tweet announcing her departure garnered almost 19,000 responses, more than 83,000 retweets and over 410,000 likes. Many athletes spoke out in support of Osaka, sharing their thoughts on how athletes are often forced to suffer. In contrast, many others were quick to ridicule Osaka for standing up for herself, calling her a “diva” and “narcissistic.” Obviously, the negative responses calling Osaka privileged indicate an apathetic and perhaps naive perspective. In the process of being obsessed with the game or entrenched within institutions, many seem to have forgotten basic human decency. However, for someone struggling with mental health issues, any spotlight — be it positive or negative — can exacerbate those problems.
The reason Osaka cited for skipping press conferences was anxiety. Due to the apathy of the organizers of the French Open, as well as those who found time to ridicule Osaka publicly and the subsequent media attention, Osaka has been the subject of constant press and speculation on her character, drive and ability — the very thing she sought to avoid.
While they garnered much support, her social media posts announcing her withdrawal from the tournament weren’t victorious or celebratory. Osaka had no choice but to explain her decision and struggles with mental health to the millions watching after the dogged attention. Much of the positive attention she received was still unwanted and continues to single her out specifically for her mental health concerns. The more we talk about Naomi Osaka as an isolated martyr for mental health, rather than striving to understand the systemic reasons behind Osaka’s decision, the more we make a spectacle of someone who’s suffering.
To be clear: Her announcement is important. In a guest essay for the New York Times, Kelli María Korducki writes that Osaka has given a face to the growing and long overdue revolt. By speaking up, Osaka has brought attention to issues within sports and has removed some of the stigmas for future athletes who will choose to prioritize their mental health. Additionally, her prominence in the media prompts conversations about the necessity to recognize mental health as a serious concern. What is a big deal today will end up being completely regular tomorrow… hopefully. Still, normalizing anything in the public eye involves sacrifice — one that Naomi Osaka didn’t choose to make.
Osaka didn’t ask to be the face of a movement. Osaka, a dedicated activist for causes including Black Lives Matter, is passionate about using her platform to speak up. That doesn’t mean she can be an advocate for every cause. Naomi Osaka is not just a famous athlete, but also a real person. As a human being, she opened up about her struggles; as a celebrity, she has been isolated, criticized and analyzed by the media for her struggles. Dealing with one’s own problems is hard enough. Osaka was in an unhealthy place when she announced her departure, and still is — she recently announced her withdrawal from the German Open. To be questioned and ridiculed for your struggles by millions is a harrowing experience that many can’t even comprehend.
When we speak of Osaka’s terrible experiences at the French Open, what we should be doing is questioning the systems that have led to this unfortunate incident. We should be criticizing the ridiculously apathetic and inconsiderate practices of the organizers and how they refuse to admit any wrongdoing. We should be trying to stop relentlessly participating in celebrity culture, where people are turned into caricatures of a manufactured persona, and, instead, we ought to treat others with respect for their health and boundaries. We should be trying to understand how existing systems are inconsiderate toward our well-being. We should be questioning how we manage to further perpetuate apathy towards well-being when we push the narrative that Naomi Osaka is a “diva” or “narcissistic” and completely ignore her struggles.
It is especially troubling that in 2021, our society is in a place where taking care of one’s well-being makes international headlines and inspires such hatred. It shouldn’t be a big deal! If an athlete wants to stop playing for mental health reasons, it should be treated just as if they were out with a physical injury. Must we exist in a system where we’ve been trained not to pay attention to our own well-being, and doing so is considered “lazy” and “selfish”?
Many Americans are scared to ask for time off. Additionally, many can’t afford it. Especially after the pandemic, where many are suffering from extra medical debt, it can feel impossible to invest the time or resources to care for oneself. Not being given the necessary time to take care of our health has largely led people to view self-care as a luxury rather than a necessity. However, mental health was at an all-time low in 2020. During that time, did you feel that asking for a mental break was out of the question? Were you anticipating a negative answer?
It’s ridiculous that people are continually expected to work in conditions that are actively harmful to their well-being without respite, and when they stand up for themselves, they’re actively targeted. Let’s call it what it is: a violation of personal autonomy. Osaka left the French Open out of necessity, citing self-care. We often equate self-care with unnecessary purchases from the beauty industry rather than actually listening to our emotional, mental and physical needs. Instead of viewing self-care as something to dismiss, we must remember what it should be: something that all institutions and people should unequivocally respect.
Meera Kumar is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.