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.