Tough Bitches Say No

Words by: Dena Tissera 
Art by: Lauren Easter

This July I decided to quit playing basketball. I haven’t picked up a ball since. If you know me, you might think this is a bit strange because I probably mentioned my interest in exercise and basketball as soon as we met. The sport has always been a central tenet of my being and yet, when I finally had the chance to play post-pandemic, it only took six or seven games for me to call it quits. 

Let me explain.

Growing up as a lanky brown girl in suburban Melbourne was difficult for a plethora of reasons. Pimples, racism (both external and internalised), raging hormones with no way to escape because I went to an all-girls high school, a general inability to grasp mathematical concepts: these are just some of the reasons why I (like many of us) found my formative years tough. Luckily, I was able to claw through the wreckage of my adolescence by picking up a basketball. 

As a gauche young girl, adopting the title of ‘Basketball Player’ felt like a big fuck you to the world. I wanted to rage against the idea that I should be a dutiful South Asian daughter who got good grades and cooked traditional foods. I felt I was squashing the idea that the best thing a woman could be was beautiful. I wanted to feel strong in a world that does not afford much power to the daughters of immigrants. I aligned myself with a sport associated with stereotypes of Black masculinity, in an effort to conceal my own budding femininity which I did not yet understand. I felt that with every push-up I completed or kilometre I ran, I brought myself closer to the untouchable person I was striving to become. 

During my teenage years, I learnt important (and perhaps clichéd) lessons about the value of hard work by practising before and after school. I must also add that I didn’t come out of the womb a gifted athlete. Instead, I spent hours pushing myself to become someone who could run fast, jump high and shoot accurately. Eventually, the title became me: I was Dena the Basketball Player. I achieved goals, qualifying for the high school basketball team, representative basketball and playing for the Melbourne Tigers. 

By the end of it all, I felt broken. 

Years of competition against others and myself, pushing my physical limits, and existing exclusively outside of my comfort zone took their toll. The sport had become a minefield of feelings of inadequacy, comparison and stress. It became a weight I could not carry; towards the end of Year 12, I rolled the ball away under the guise of academic pressure. 

At university, I toyed with my basketball player identity now and again, joining a team when I could, playing here and there. When the pandemic happened though, I had no choice but to stop. 

When Melbourne finally began to reopen this year, I networked my way onto a women’s basketball team  一 an old identity serving as a crutch during an unfamiliar time. But when I picked up a ball in 2021, those feelings of pressure and inadequacy returned. Perhaps it was the months in lockdown, but I simply could not navigate them— so, rather uncharacteristically, I quit. 

I am sad to report that the act of quitting wasn’t as liberating as I’d hoped. It may sound silly, but I felt I was turning my back on what had once been a cornerstone of my identity. I felt that I’d rejected the fierce competitor in me and the tough bitch persona that I so loved about myself. The decision left a lingering taste of fragility in my mouth. 

Fast forward to a few weeks later. 

Sitting on my couch on a random afternoon, I came across a headline on Instagram: Simone Biles Withdraws from the Tokyo Olympics. Not to draw a false equivalency between my adolescent basketball career and the GOAT Simone Biles, but her actions revolutionised the way I saw my own. 

Biles is undoubtedly a superstar. Twenty-seven of her total 31 medals are gold, she has no less than four gymnastics moves named after her, and she is widely considered one of the greatest athletes IN HISTORY. Many expected Biles to dominate Tokyo 2020. Instead, she quietly withdrew, citing her mental health as the reason why she walked away. 

Whilst gymnastics is not in my wheelhouse, I’ve always had the utmost respect for Biles as an athlete. This time, it wasn’t her performance that inspired me, but her mental resilience to leave a situation that no longer served her. I’d thought that fierce competitors never give up, that tough bitches always keep going, but she taught me otherwise. From her, I learnt that tough bitches say no. 

In retrospect, my decision to quit basketball was honestly, not that deep. I still had all the amazing lessons that I learnt from basketball about self-confidence, inner strength and hard work — I  was just stepping away for the sake of my sanity. I figured I could always pick up a basketball again, whenever I felt ready. I was simply making room for new identities and experiences. 

These days — whether you’re growing out of old identities like I was, or just trying to get off your phone more — boundaries are a necessary part of life. Through a torrent of hustle culture Instagram quotes, we are constantly being fed narratives of the importance of being and doing more. Nonetheless, it’s imperative that we understand when this message is serving us and when it’s hurting us. Whilst they are not always easy to put up, just remember what the patron saint of boundaries, Simone Biles, taught us: tough bitches say no

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