Gymnast Shawn Johnson Reveals The Scary Conflict Many Female Athletes Face
As I’m counting down the days to the Rio Olympics, all I can think of is how excited I am to watch some serious feats of jaw-dropping athleticism. Ever since I was a kid, sports like gymnastics and diving, have completely captivated and awed me. But as the athletes themselves—especially female athletes—head to one of the biggest competitions of their lives, they’re gearing up for a lot more than just worrying about their best performance. Odds are, the sports media and mainstream media will be critiquing their looks and making uncalled for jabs.
Olympic Gold medalist Shawn Johnson is no stranger to the
pressures that female athletes face and she wants things to change. The gymnast
recently partnered with Dove to launch the #MyBeautyMySay campaign to turn the
conversation away from an athlete’s appearance. She sat down for a candid talk
with NewBeauty and shed a surprising light into the world of competitive
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NewBeauty: When you look at athletes and what their bodies are capable of—these are bodies that should be celebrated. But I seem to be hearing a different message, that confidence and self-esteem issues are prevalent among professional and elite athletes.
Shawn Johnson: Definitely. I feel like all female athletes struggle with trying to fit into society’s mold. We don’t celebrate their bodies individually and we just critique them instead. It’s really hard for them to have as much confidence in their own bodies for their performance as they should.
I don’t understand [the constant criticism]. I feel like we accept men in the athletic world and we don’t necessarily critique their bodies and their looks, but with women, we’re just so caught up in a world that wants women to be absolutely perfect that, even in the athletic world where it doesn’t really transfer over, we still see that.
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NB: Is the criticism worse in gymnastics?
SJ: Absolutely. It's a subjective sport that has so much pressure on looks to begin with that I feel like the general population will look at that and critique any girl that doesn’t look the same. In a sport where every single girl is performing different routines and different skills and different difficulties, they should look different.
NB: When you hear about athletes training 40 hours a week and then dieting and trying to lose weight—are they doing that because it affects performance or because they want their body to look at certain way?
SJ: Because it affects how the body looks. I dealt with it and I feel like a lot of athletes feel conflicted between trying to please the world and look how the public wants and doing what’s right for their body and their performance. A lot of times, those don’t go hand in hand.
NB: Does the way an athlete looks affect their success—especially off the court?
SJ: Absolutely. In the sport, it doesn’t matter what you look like. You can succeed. But outside of sports, when it comes to sponsorships and media opportunities, everybody’s looking for that one trophy girl. They want to be the perfect athlete, have the perfect body, the perfect look, and perfect personality, and that’s what they’ll invest in. It’s not about respecting a sport and an athlete, and signing them for their ability.
NB: Do you think there are any misconceptions that everybody has about athletes?
SJ: I’d say a big misconception is that as female athletes, we don’t mind that you critique us; we want that, just like any other athlete. We need to critique our sport and our ability and our skill. We can either fix it, or we can tell you no, you’re wrong, and this is why. But if the critique is about how you look and has no effect on our skill or our sport, then there’s nothing we can do about it.
NB: What advice would you give to women who are trying to build body confidence?
SJ: Embrace, truly embrace, who you are. Don’t be afraid to be who you are and be different, because we’re all supposed to be different.
NB: And how did you personally come to being able to do that?
SJ: It took a long, long time, but I had a great circle of people around me, my friends, my family gave me that reassurance and the confidence until I learned to have it on my own.