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Osaka and Biles: The ‘No’s’ heard around the world

“The only people who get upset when you set boundaries are the ones who benefitted from you not having any.” — Anonymous. To that quote I add: “For most of history, ‘Anonymous’ was a woman.” — Virginia Woolf. Women setting boundaries is a vital conversation we all must have regardless of national or gender identity. And not anonymously either.

The recent events surrounding Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles reminded me of a self-defense class I once taught for teen girls, sponsored by 50-50 Leadership and the late Jaylene Mosley. It was held in late summer, inside a carpeted classroom and had 30 participants. I began with an individual exercise of having each student yell “No!” However, when I got to the third young woman, she said, “I don’t want to.”

As the teacher, I froze momentarily while thinking, “How dare she? This is not how the class is supposed to go!” But then, because of my decades of experience being an instructor with IMPACT Personal Safety, it became a teachable moment.

I addressed the room, asking, “Is ‘I don’t want to’ an acceptable reason to decline to do something? Anyone, just shout out your answer.” Almost everyone chimed in with various forms of “no.” I continued. “Would forcing her to yell ‘no’ be a good idea?” Crickets. I could feel the students thinking. I finished with, “Just think of the hell that would break loose if a critical mass of women and girls had the freedom to say, ‘No, I don’t want to’ when they really didn’t want to.”

If you have people in your life that argue with you when you set a boundary or only respect boundaries they agree with, look again. Are they really on your team? Maybe not.

The young woman who declined got more engaged and left the class having been validated. What my basic boundaries student did was radical and provided a vivid lesson in boundary-setting within a boundary-setting class. Had I shamed, cajoled or sweet-talked her into yelling “No!” anyway, I would have been the worst kind of hypocrite.

We’ve seen stellar boundaries set in the past weeks. Tennis titleholder Naomi Osaka and genius gymnast Simone Biles are Olympic-level boundary setters who have repeatedly put everything they have on the line, while also making themselves ultra-visible. They are women of excellence who also happen to be women of color. Osaka and Biles are revolutionary and the answer to my dreams of women being their own advocates.

The taboo against women of any color setting boundaries runs deep. One does not say “no” within the entrenched white patriarchal codes we’ve all grown up with unless the no-sayer has clanging ovaries of brass and profound convictions. Oh, wait, what’s that sound? It’s the jangle of baby brass ovaries growing all over the world.

If you know me or have read me for any length of time, you know my mission and passion in life is to revive the boundary-setting capacities of females of every type. I believe with all my heart that women and girls are a crucial component in having the world work for everyone with no one and nothing left out. Meanwhile, my siblings in Empowerment Self-Defense — ESD Global and IMPACT Personal Safety — are busy around the world doing the same thing.

Have you considered why a primary “female” social virtue is being compliant and nice? Do you think that women are born to be exploited? Do you believe that women are inherently weak or that acquiescence is in the X chromosome? To take a stand is to risk being thought of as “uppity” and unattractive. Unattractive to whom?

As in any problems that seem intractable, the maxim “follow the money” is spot-on. Professional sports involve big money at all levels. In the case of Biles, withdrawing from competition caused a significant financial hit to NBC, Visa and other sponsors who were exploiting Simone without her participation.

This “limits” problem is also thorny for whichever group of people is non-dominant. For example, the overwhelming numbers of Black participants in football and boxing who risk brain damage and other life-threatening injuries at rates much higher than whites. This happens because, generally speaking, white players do not see such violent sports as tickets out of poverty.

At this stage in their careers, Ms. Osaka and Ms. Biles do not owe anyone an explanation. My fervent hope is that parents use them as object lessons for their children in standing up for themselves. Mommy says, “See, honey? Naomi and Simone can’t be emotionally or financially bought, isn’t that inspiring?” Daddy says, “If anyone tries to bribe you or shame you into taking actions you don’t want to take, think of Simone and Naomi.” That is the feminism I have longed for.

I’ll close with one of my favorite Rebecca West quotes: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”

Ellen Snortland has written “Consider This…” for a heckuva long time, and she also coaches first-time book authors! Contact her at

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