Now more than ever before, Black women are not only putting their mental health first, but recognizing the life-changing, soul-moving power of saying “no.” In our final issue of 2021, we’re reflecting on this Year of Radical Self-Care by celebrating the women who publicly said no to societal expectations and yes to themselves.

Simone Biles, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Lizzo each appear on the front of our November/December issue in a special three-cover edition of the magazine. Inside, each woman talks about having the courage to choose themselves and the lessons they learned by prioritizing their mental health.

Simone Biles

“I definitely knew any stand I took would be a little bit bigger than itself,” Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles tells writer Kovie Biakolo of her decision to withdraw from the summer games this year in her cover story, “More Than A Medal.” “At the end of the day, we’re humans. We’re not just athletes. We’re not just here for entertainment.”

While discussing the “twisties” that lead to her headline-making move not to compete along with the backlash to her withdrawal, as well as the outpouring of love and support she received, Biles ultimately explains in the feature, “I feel content with what I did and how I made the decision.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones

When Pulitzer Prize–winner Nikole Hannah-Jones declined to accept tenure at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill months after they withdrew their initial offer, she didn’t just say no for herself.

“It was important for me to say no to UNC, for my dignity, my self-respect,” she explains to ESSENCE Senior News and Politics Editor Malaika Jabali in her cover story, “When ‘NO’ Opens Doors.” “And then, outside of me, I needed to do it for Black people and marginalized people, for their dignity and respect, too.”

Hannah-Jones, whose groundbreaking 1619 Project for The New York Times Magazine was published as a book, The 1619 Project: An Origin Story, this week, immediately saw the impact of that choice. “A lot of people were watching, people who you wouldn’t think would have any investment at all in whether some New York Times reporter gets tenure at a university,” notes the professor who subsequently joined Howard University and is now creating their Center for Journalism and Democracy. “One TSA agent told me, ‘I hope North Carolina does right by you.’” 


Being misunderstood has become a fact of life for singer-rapper Lizzo who tells ESSENCE Senior Entertainment Editor Brande Victorian in her cover story, “Simply Being,” “No one’s ever right about me.” 

Balancing backlash for the way she embraces her body with criticisms of her sound and the expectation of the type of music audiences think a Black woman should make is a constant battle. But Lizzo remains rooted in who she is. “I use 808s, just not in the same way everyone else does,” she explains of the drum machine that characterizes most of today’s hip-hop and R&B. “I have songs I could drop right now, but that’s just not my -purpose. That’s not why God made me and put me on this planet at this exact time.”

Because of her resolve to march to the beat of her own drum, both literally and figuratively, Lizzo has been hoisted up as a model of body-positivity. But her hope is that her fame doesn’t lead to more conversations about the success of plus-size Black women but rather less attention put on the exterior.

“It’s exhausting,” Lizzo admits. “And that’s the point. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. We should be neutral about bodies.”

Simone Biles, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and Lizzo appear on the November/December 2021 cover of ESSENCE, available on newsstands December 14.

Simone Biles

Photographer: Chrisean Rose

Writer: Kovie Biakolo

Stylist: Jason Rembert 

Stylist Assistant: Wilton White

Makeup Artist: Jessica Smalls at The Wall Group

Hairstylist: Weezydidit

Manicurist: Krystina Woods

Nikole Hannah-Jones 

Photographer: Itaysha Jordan

Writer: Malaika Jabali

Stylist: Jason Rembert

Stylist Assistant: Christina Arroyo 

Makeup Artist: Jessica Smalls at The Wall Group using Bobby Brown

Hair Stylist: Monaè Everett for Epiphany Artists using Biolage Hair Care 

Manicurist: Sunshine Outing


Photographer: Ramona Rosales

Writer: Brande Victorian

Stylist: Jason Rembert

Stylist Assistant: Shameelah Hicks and Wilton White

Hair Stylist: Shelby Swain for Exclusive Artists using True Indian Hair

Makeup Artist: Alexx Mayo for The Only Agency

Manicurist: Merrick Fisher/Opus Beauty

Nail Design by: Eri ishizu/Opus Beauty using Chanel Le Vernis


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