Shawn Johnson wants you to know she doesn’t care anymore. Even before she made the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team in 2008, Johnson had been hearing and internalizing criticisms about her image and body type. She was too short. She was too muscular, too stocky.
It was even worse when she was a contestant on Dancing With The Stars a year later. Johnson left the Beijing Olympics with a gold medal on balance beam and three more silver medals for floor, all-around and the team competition. She left Dancing With The Stars as the season eight champion, but what stuck out to her was the constant criticism of her appearance.
Johnson wants this to change and it’s what brings her to New York City, where she’s partnered with Dove for a new campaign called #MyBeautyMySay, which brings to focus the way the media and others describe female athletes by their appearance more than their skill. Johnson did not have the build of the stereotypical gymnast body and even when she was performing well—which was quite often—her appearance always took center stage.
In her competition days, Johnson was routinely referred to as a “powerhouse” because of her style of gymnastics. She accepts her style and that specific term wasn’t always bothersome. Instead, it was the adjectives placed beforehand in the descriptions.
“I knew I was a powerful athlete,” Johnson said. “It was always the comments and titles of like ‘this stocky, bulky, muscular powerhouse.’ It would be that and then I would read articles about other gymnasts that were so ‘elegant’ and ‘graceful’ and ‘long’ and ‘lean.’ It was always just why weren’t they saying those things about me if they’re saying them about them and vice versa, instead of talking just strictly about performance.”
The connotation of these words is what makes the descriptions a problem. “Muscular” in a vacuum doesn’t seem to be too loaded of a phrase. Theoretically, it could even be used to describe any elite gymnast. Take any of the 14 women who competed at Olympic Trials earlier this month and she’ll be stronger than 99 percent of the population. But not all of them are going to be labeled “muscular” because it’s reserved only for the ones with a frame like Johnson and that’s what she’s trying to change.
Sometimes, though, the demeaning nature of the descriptions aren’t as veiled. As part of the Dove campaign, a billboard was revealed in Times Square that shows women participating in sports while quotes from real media outlets flash on the screen. Phrases such as “built like a fire hydrant” and “quality ass” are among those featured, both actual ways female athletes have been described in the media.
During the peak of her gymnastics career, Johnson was just 16 years old and not yet in a place where she was able to tune out these types of comments about her image.
“As a 16-year-old, I prioritized [my image] over my performance,” Johnson said. “I thought if I looked the part, I would do better. I remember sacrificing how I felt in training, eating, sleeping to focus more on my appearance than my actual performance.”
This isn’t easy for any female athlete to deal with—just take a look at any one’s social media mentions to see what occurs on a daily basis—but it can be even harder in gymnastics, an inherently aesthetic sport. Johnson always found confidence in her scores, but portions of those scores were literally based on how she looked.
“It makes it very difficult,” Johnson said of the way gymnasts are judged. ”There’s so much pressure to look a certain way, but I feel like if we can change what the community and the world are saying about that, then maybe we can change the extreme pressure on gymnasts to look a certain way. The subjectivity should be a little bit more open.”
Eight years removed from the Olympics, Johnson is now at a place in her life where she’s ready to move on and block out the criticism. It’s part of the reason why Johnson is ready and so willing to speak out and join in on this campaign.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care as much about what people think, what they’re going to say and what they’re going to write,” Johnson said. “I have met and worked with so many kids who have and are going through the same things that I did and looking for someone to relate to, tell them ‘it’s ok and it’s going to work out,’ and tell them how to deal with it. I felt like I just had to share.”
Johnson’s next move is a trip to Rio to work with Yahoo! for Olympic coverage. She’ll be a part of the site’s digital coverage ranging from recaps, commentary, and lifestyle features.
This is the perfect job for Johnson—the gymnastics that will be seen in Rio on the women’s side will look much like Johnson’s did in Beijing. Gymnastics is a continually evolving sport with new and bigger skills being performed every year, and Johnson was at the forefront of bringing big skills to routines. Elements such as a double-twisting double back on floor or a full-twisting double back dismount off beam were staples of Johnson’s routines and will be seen in more routines in 2016 than in 2008.
“[I see it] a little bit,” Johnson says when asked if she sees her influence on what the sport looks like now. “I also could never compete alongside these girls because their difficulty way surpasses mine,” she was quick to add.
“I do feel like 2008 was the first time we kind of saw a clear-cut, black and white different styles and they were both successful, which hadn’t really been done before. There was always the stereotypical long, lean lines and that was gymnastics—that was gymnastics success. To go in there and be completely different from what anyone else had been doing, and be successful and now see all the girls doing similar things, I love it.”
An increase in difficulty is part of what has helped the U.S. become such a dominant power in women’s gymnastics. So much so there’s appeared to be an attempt to reign back the U.S. advantage. For example after the Code of Points was redone following the 2012 Olympics, the Amanar vault (a two-and-a-half twisting yurchenko, made famous by McKayla Maroney) was devalued two-tenths in its start value. This was viewed by many in the gymnastics community as a target on the American team. Typically skills are devalued when they’re being over-exploited with too many gymnasts performing them. With only a small amount of gymnasts able to attempt this vault, most of them American, it appeared to be a way to bring the U.S. back toward the competition. However, with the talent on the current U.S. team, they’re still expected to easily finish first in the team competition.
“I feel like our strong suit is we have the ability to have so much difficulty that if we can pull it off, we’re untouchable,” Johnson said of the women’s outlook in Rio. “I feel like the U.S. has noticed the favor in the powerful and ‘wow’ gymnastics that it’s kind of become the fan favorite and the girls’ favorite.”
“But I’m biased because that was my style of gymnastics,” she added.
Bias or not, it’s hard to not notice the influence Johnson had on the sport. Johnson still wants to have that type of impact, but now it’s about the way we watch and talk about the sport. It shouldn’t be a hard fix to make, but it could make a massive difference in the lives of many females athletes.
“I was always searching for the feeling that I had in the gym outside and it took a long time to get it,” she said. “I owned that stage and I loved that feeling.”