An Open Letter From Shawn Johnson
“Hot Blonde.” “Huge Nipples.” “Frizzy Hair.” These are just a few of the descriptions of other female athletes I have recently seen in the media. Regardless of how strong these women’s performances were, at the end of the day, the media and the world still continue to layer commentary about their looks into their reporting of the sport. I have continuously been inspired by the Dove real beauty mission throughout my career. So, when I heard the brand was launching the #MyBeautyMySay campaign to challenge the way female athletes are represented in the media, I knew I had to be a part of it. It’s time to focus on all athletes’ performance, not their appearance. I know, because I was targeted with invasive comments about my body—starting when I was just 16 years old.
Criticism is nothing new in the sports industry, but around 2008 was the first time that the gymnastics world was seeing success from someone who was powerful, who was more about strength than grace. 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 as a way to question my performance skillset, and it didn’t stop there.
I was at this competition to compete as a world-class athlete, but so much of the conversation was about how I looked. I was being told by the media, and the world, 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!”
Because of all those comments, I was constantly aware of aesthetics. I tried to figure out how to do my hair and makeup and make my leotard look better. I even remember going into the cafeteria and questioning what I should eat. I needed a lot of fuel, but all I kept thinking about was what I had been told about my weight, and I thought, "Maybe I shouldn't eat as much, so I can shed a few pounds to potentially win." 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.
In the end, though, my confidence in my athletic ability was enough. I was able to push those thoughts away and win. But I wonder what gymnastics and women’s sports overall would look like if the athletes could focus solely on their performance.
I partnered with Dove on the #MyBeautyMySay campaign to challenge the way women are represented in the media. One of the parts I’m most excited about: Starting in late July, there will be billboards in New York City, Los Angeles, and Toronto broadcasting actual comments people in media are making about female athletes’ appearance, which Dove started collecting in June. As the comments appear, the women in the billboard will disappear. Because when the media only sees a female athlete’s looks, we don’t see her at all—it ends up trivializing her achievements. You can have a say, too. Take a stand and visit Dove.com/HaveYourSay to Tweet at media whose coverage perpetuates this negativity using the hashtag #MyBeautyMySay.
Let’s put an end to a world where women’s athletics involve pressure to compete for things that have nothing to do with their sport: to become the world's sexiest female athlete, or land a coveted magazine cover. After all, certain stories or photo shoots can wind up objectifying who you are instead of respecting you as an athlete. A study found that 64% of female athletes featured in the media are shown in passive poses—meaning glamorous or sexy—compared to a majority of male athletes, who are portrayed emphasizing their skill in their sport.
And all of this matters. We have to teach women and girls that they can be athletes without worrying about their appearance. Research by Dove found that 85% of women and 79% of girls with low body-esteem are more likely to stop doing the things they love, including opting out of sports activities, if they don’t feel good about the way they look.
If you have a girl in a gym putting in the work, but you still keep critiquing her body, she's going to lose confidence, because she's going to feel helpless. If you allow an athlete, male or female, to earn respect based on their ability, hard work, and performance, then you let them earn confidence in themselves.
It’s time to set the bar higher. Will you join me?