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By Shawn Johnson
Shawn Johnson is blogging for espnW throughout her training for the Olympics in London this summer. Follow hers other Olympic hopefuls' journeys on espnW.com
Four years ago, I was standing on an Olympic podium, wearing a gold medal, and still thinking to myself how I could have been better. It had nothing to do with my performance — it was all how I looked. Back then, I always felt like I could have been a few pounds lighter. But the irony is, when I look back at the pictures, I look unhealthy and too thin. It's easy to get into a trap as an elite athlete, because you're made to feel that you're never perfect, that you can always be better. That's how you improve in your sport, but it's also tough because you aren't satisfied with yourself ever — it's second nature not to be. I'd always think, "Just get a little stronger, a little lighter," until it was completely ingrained in my mind.
It's easy for people to blame gymnastics for this mentality, but I feel like the sport has improved a lot. The horror stories we heard from generations ago (think Joan Ryan's infamous book Little Girls in Pretty Boxes), you don't hear at all anymore. But I do believe it can improve further and that good nutrition could be a key to all of this, if it were only taught at a young age. Many gymnasts go into the elite level at 13 or so, and a 13-year-old isn't going to go to the library to read some book on nutrition! She needs to be given the right information on how to eat well. Otherwise, it's not until she's out of the sport that she realizes the damage she's done to her body by not eating enough over the past 20 years.
I see all the success we have as a country where the gymnasts aren't 100 percent healthy, and I imagine how amazing we could be if we were doing it in the healthiest way possible. I don't think it's a failure on anybody's part; the education just isn't there right now, and it's just not thought about in our sport. My parents have told me since I was little, "You're given your body for a reason. It's OK to be different. Being unique is a good thing." But I always struggled to believe it. I'm stocky, muscular and short, and I wanted to be thin and flexible so bad! My mom would say, "You're not made that way, and you're not going to become that, so you have to learn to accept and love the body you're in." Well, some people are born with that appreciation, and some people have to work really hard to get there. Put me in that second camp.
Read on for more on what Shawn Johnson has to say about body confidence and how she feels in her gymnastics leotard.
The lowest point for me actually came after the Beijing Olympics, when I was on Dancing With the Stars. Though they made it look pretty glorious and glamorous on TV, it didn't feel like that at all. I kept reading how I was the Olympic champion who'd let herself go, and that's all I could think about. (I know I shouldn't read articles and comments about myself, but it's like a moth to a flame! It's impossible not to.) Dancing was never my strength in gymnastics, so I was completely out of my comfort zone, and I think because of that I was especially vulnerable to all the criticism. I was being compared to the model Holly Madison, so it's not like I could really hold my own there!
I've been in the news a lot this week for the weight loss I've had since Dancing With the Stars. I gave a quote about it to a reporter at the USOC media summit, and all the coverage totally caught me by surprise. But it gives me a good chance to talk about these things that aren't talked about enough. I know a lot of people — women, girls, boys, anyone — go through self-doubt and body-image issues every day. My goal is to tell people my experience, in hopes that maybe some of them will realize they don't have to feel this same way.
When I look back at the way I disliked my body in 2008 and 2009, it makes me a little sad. I should have just enjoyed who I was. I've realized now that I need to change the way I think about myself. I'm working on it, but it's a mindset I've had since I was young. I know now that it's not the right approach to my life, and I'm more confident. But it takes time.
It's tough to wear a leotard, for sure, but it's also a great equalizer. You don't rely on the prettiest clothes or makeup; it forces you to feel good about yourself exactly as you are. So I'll keep wearing a leotard (and training for this little thing called the Olympics, just a few short months away), and hopefully, I'll also keep working toward liking my body, just as it is.
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