Why Shawn Johnson’s Weight Loss is Not Heroic

Photo credit Brad Penner, US Presswire

By Ashley-Michelle Papon

Three years ago, America fell in love with the plucky Shawn Johnson. Just 16, she captured plenty of hearts—and headlines—with three silver medals during the 2008 Olympics. The talented gymnast also took home a gold medal, a highlight for many during a competition riddled with controversy and accusations of cheating by the hosting country of China.

Olympic fervor is starting to heat back up, and Johnson is once again a media darling. But Johnson isn’t back in the news because she’s gearing up to compete in the upcoming Games. According to an article at USA Today—which just can’t resist mentioning her height, eating habits, and calculating her body fat percentage—Johnson apparently put on some weight during her three-year hiatus from competing. Recently, she eclipsed her announcement of an Olympic comeback with the admission that she’d lost 25 pounds.

Although an athlete losing weight is almost rarely newsworthy, advocates for the body space can’t help but take notice of Johnson. Because in stunning departure from the usual fatist-apologism-masquerading-as-health-concern, Johnson is targeting critical comments about her larger size as directly responsible for encouraging her to be healthy.

Without a trace of irony, USA Today reports that Johnson came to the realization that “people put too much emphasis on looks.” Johnson elaborated by saying:

“We’re taught at such a young age that you can always be better and that you’re never perfect and that you’re never good enough. You find your worth in someone else and what they say just from having looked at you. It’s hard. I was at the Olympic Games winning medals and I still doubted my image. I doubted what I looked like. That’s sad. Girls should be taught different than that. I think everyone should be taught different than that.”

It’s easy to see that this decision has been in motion since her triumphant showing at the Olympics. After returning to the States, Johnson participated in the eighth season of “Dancing with the Stars.” In an impressive display that may have been bolstered by her gymnastic know-how, she and professional dancer Mark Ballas won the competition.

The show started out as a virtual utopia where C-list reality TV personalities and depowered athletes could attempt to resurrect their fading careers. Over the recent seasons, however, the show has experienced a niche revival among Hollywood women by serving as a season-long televised personal training session for the likes of Kirstie Alley, Ricki Lake, and Marie Osmond. It’s fair to say that these women received more ink in the tabloids recounting their weight battles than whether they mastered the paso doble.

During Johnson’s time on the show, she wasn’t exempt from the glaring commentary. Like most female competitors, Johnson’s sequined outfits often left little to the imagination. After the season ended, Johnson shared she’d frequently been compared to fellow competitor and former Playboy centerfold Holly Madison. According to gymnastic blog Full Twist, the experience and “backlash” to her post-Olympic weight gain encouraged her to speak out about body acceptance.

Which brings us back to the present. Let’s recap. Johnson was criticized for daring to have more than six percent body fat, an experience which taught her that people think too much about the body aesthetic. She thinks girls should be taught to think differently instead of defining themselves by what others think about their bodies. In order to accomplish that, she drops the weight?

The Johnson debacle is a frustrating one for me to weigh in on (no pun intended). I generally try to avoid snarking when it comes to the intersection of body image, athletics, and the media because that was the origin of my own 15-year battle with bulimia.

Starting at 18 months, I dreamt of becoming a ballerina and received private lessons to pursue that goal. Unfortunately, I didn’t (and still don’t) possess the body type that traditionally succeeds in that industry—something my classmates enjoyed bringing to my attention time and again. Despite years of pushing myself to the limits with starving and purging, I eventually hung up my toe shoes for good before I entered high school, though my eating disorder continued for several more years.

I do empathize with the pressure Johnson is under, though a dancing career that never materialized is obviously a different animal than a historical showing at the Olympic Games. But what I find so utterly disappointing is that Johnson, in recognizing how utterly destructive the manufacturing of ‘acceptable’ body standards are, is uniquely positioned to reject those standards, or embrace them.

So far, she’s choosing to embrace them.

Although I don’t doubt her sincerity in wanting to encourage girls to shy away from consuming unrealistic media standards about what a body should look like, her actions do contain a synthetic ‘do as I say, not as I do’ quality to them. In other words, it’s troubling that the person encouraging others to accept their physical selves has been stepping back into the spotlight on noticeably thinner legs, and being heralded for the decision to do so.

Johnson’s weight loss isn’t heroic, but her message could have been.

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9 thoughts on “Why Shawn Johnson’s Weight Loss is Not Heroic

  1. Cat, there’s a fine line between engaging in hypocrisy and being complacent. Shawn Johnson is in the latter category, not the former; no such word or rhetoric can be found in my article. Nor do I suggest her actions are somehow invalid, though I do imply that they’re undermined by the media’s celebration of her weight loss. Obviously, she doesn’t have any control over the media frenzy recapping how many pounds she lost, but in a world where she’s currently touring and talking about society’s obsession with how bodies look, that would be the perfect opportunity to confront the circus head on.

    Something like, “I want girls to understand that this doesn’t stop, even when you’re losing weight like everyone thinks. The media is obsessed with reporting how much weight I’ve dropped since I started my comeback. They’re making my case for me. I’m not even trying to lose weight, just get back into my training for my career, and they want to talk about how I’m down two dress sizes? And this paper wants to say I’m still not skinny enough? I’m not trying to be skinny. I’m trying to be healthy. And it just shows how it’s all rubbish, it’s nonsense, and that’s what I want girls to remember. Don’t look at my weight loss as heroic. Look back to what I said about accepting yourself, and be your own hero.”

    That would be the rejection I outlined about above, because in so doing, she’s neither engaging in hypocrisy (to use your word) nor being complacent with the system (to use my rhetoric) that demeans all of us. As the title states, Johnson’s weight loss isn’t heroic. But her message still can be. It’s not to late to recover from the mishandling so far and get her advocacy back on track for the sake of her fans.

  2. The main point of your argument appears to be hypocrisy; not her message. You bring up repeatedly in your article how her actions make what she says invalid. Statements like “She thinks girls should be taught to think differently instead of defining themselves by what others think about their bodies. In order to accomplish that, she drops the weight?” or “So far, she’s choosing to embrace them” or “her actions do contain a synthetic ‘do as I say, not as I do’ quality to them”. You offer no valuable statement about what she could have said to actually be beneficial. It seems as though no matter what she says, you wouldn’t be satisfied solely because she lost weight.

  3. Cat, like Keri, you seem to be missing what is actually in my activist crosshairs with this piece. My article never criticizes Johnson for losing weight, particularly in conjunction with her attempt at a comeback, but it does question the wisdom of looking at her act as heroic. Especially as the media conflates her soundbites of body acceptance against vivid descriptions of her “pixie” stature and glowing terms about her decreasing dress size. And Johnson, so far as I know, has not released any statements or attempted to confront the media’s fixation on her weight loss, despite waxing poetic about how society is too obsessed with the way people look. She’s not the instigator of the hoopla, but she does appear to be complacent with it, and complacency can be just as damaging.

    And that is why we continue to offer up criticisms, wherever body image issues present themselves. Because ironically enough, that is the only way to stop the cycle.

  4. I agree with Keri. I think the weight loss has a lot to do with her getting back into training. As a former gymnast myself, you stay small working out 30+ hours a week. You stop and don’t adequately adjust your eating habits (I remember being able to pack down a large pizza by myself back then) and you’re bound to gain weight. If you start training again at that volume, you’re going to lose it.

    She talks about learning to appreciate her body, which is a struggle to which most of us can relate. She knew on DWTS that the comparisons to Holly Madison were unrealistic. She’s trying to encourage people to be healthy. While her idea of healthy is going to be different than that of most other people, she’s talked about how her body is different than other elite gymnasts and trying to accept it. Gaining that much weight (I suspect she lost what she’d gained) is a sizable weight gain for anyone, least of all one who’s only 4 foot 9.

    I don’t doubt the negative press had something to do with it, but honestly, negative comments from classmates contributed to your deteriorating body image, why not have some empathy for someone who had criticism of their weight published in magazines and online for the entire world to see? Shouldn’t she be lauded for trying to have a positive image, despite her battling her own insecurities? Criticism breeds more criticism. Why not stop the cycle?

  5. The fact of the matter is, even when Shawn was on DWTS and at her heaviest, she still wasnt overweight. She was 16 when she won Gold and now at 20 years old, she was bound to gain some weight. She is a gorgeous young lady and it saddens me that she doesnt see that. While her message is good, maybe she should be putting out there that she is also exercising when she trains, and that is a big part of being healthy. Not just the fact that she is losing the weight, but how she is doing it.

  6. The problem I’m having is that Johnson is telling girls to accept the way their bodies look while her comeback is being celebrated almost exclusively by the amount of weight she has lost. Certainly, no one is disputing that the weight loss happens to be a byproduct of resuming a rigorous training regiment, but that the weight loss is even being discussed is frustrating. It undermines her message to impressionable gymnasts for whom she is a role model, and strips her advocacy of legitimacy. Especially since, as Sharon pointed out, losing weight to be smaller isn’t necessarily the right move in order to be healthier. That’s what I’m “hating” with my article, not Johnson herself.

  7. @Keri She very well may have lost the weight from training for the Olympics but we need to be careful in making the assumption that weighing less = good health. One can be ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ and be in better health than someone who weighs less. What is an accurate indicator of someone’s health is their activity level and not the number on the scale.

    The fact that her weight loss is even an issue is maddening.

  8. The way I see it: She lost weight because she got back into olympic training, not because she hated her body and thought she should be thinner. I recall seeing articles where she was dealing with body critics during the Olympics and her training. Stop all the hate with her “double standard” and be glad that she is healthy.

  9. Thanks for such a great article!

    I think the fact that Ms. Johnson can see the horrible way she is judged and yet feel compelled to give into it speaks to the longevity (centuries) and the depth in our psyches of this problem and how difficult it will be to raise awareness and keep it raised.

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