How gymnastics champion Shawn Johnson beat the beauty standards that cripple girls’ self-esteem

Makeup has nothing to do with it.
Makeup has nothing to do with it.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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Heading into the biggest athletic competition of my life, the only thing I needed to focus on was nailing my gymnastics routines. But there was one major distraction: Reporters picking apart and criticizing the way I looked. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, female athletes often have to contend with media on their appearance—what they wear, how fat or thin they are, even whether or not they’re pretty. But after living through that kind of devastating scrutiny when I was only 16 years old, I have realized how important it is to stop diminishing female athletes in this way.

I entered gymnastics during an era when graceful athletes dominated the sport. But my success came from my strength and power, and commentators were quick to zero in on these perceived differences. In interviews, I was asked, “Do you think you’ll be successful, since you have a different body style than a normal gymnast?” Journalists, commentators, and anchors kept comparing my body to those of my teammates. I was told that I was too muscular, that I had too much bulk, that I was too short, that I looked too young. People even said that I had big ears! And when my looks weren’t being criticized, I was being patronized: I was “so cute” and “pint-sized.”

With the commentators and the news reporters focused on a topic that had nothing to do with my sport and my hard work, I felt helpless.

Luckily, I was ultimately able to push those thoughts away during the competition. But athletes shouldn’t have to face these distractions at all. Because this kind of treatment isn’t just annoying, it has real consequences—especially for young women and girls. In fact, a private study conducted by Dove found that six in 10 girls stop doing the things they love, including opting out of sports activities, because of anxiety surrounding their looks. Everyone’s voice is important, which is why today, I am teaming up with Dove’s new campaign in order to help teach girls that they can be athletes without worrying about their appearance.

All this is not to say the media has to go soft on female athletes. We can take criticism, just like our male peers. But if you’re going to tear me apart, tear apart my gymnastics. Tear apart the one thing that athletes can either defend or work on, that actually is part of our sport. But if we’re out on the field, don’t start commenting on the kind of makeup we’re using. The bottom line is, female athletes are out there to impress you with our hard work, our skills, and our all-out talent. We’re not out there to impress you with our looks.