Olympic fever is building as we get closer to the 2016 Olympics, where the U.S. gymnastics team is sure to be a major highlight. If you’re a gymnastics fan, you no doubt remember Shawn Johnson’s multi-medal winning performance at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Where is Shawn Johnson now? The Olympic gold medalist is advocating for young female athletes by teaming up with Dove for #MyBeautyMySay, a campaign the pushes the media to focus on female athletes’ achievements, rather than their looks. In a recent interview with Bustle, Johnson talked about how the media’s persistent focus on her appearance has affected her throughout her career, what she’s up to now, and what she’s looking forward to in Rio.
Johnson was only 16 years old when she won gold for balance beam at the 2008 Olympics, along with silver medals for team, all-around, and floor. Now 24, Johnson told me that the Dove campaign — which calls out the media for often focusing more on female athletes’ looks than their actual achievements — hits close to home. “I feel like we see so much of that with female athletics,” she said. “It’s always about who’s the sexiest, who’s the hottest, who looks the best in a dress on the red carpet, instead of how well they played or performed.”
The pressure to fulfill certain ideals of beauty — even at the highest level of competition —certainly impacted her at the Olympics in Beijing. She recalled,
The media always kind of wants to critique our physique, and for me it was always a big comparison between Nastia Liukin and I, who were teammates and good friends, but we were two completely different body styles. She had the more traditional ‘gymnastics body,’ and I had the more muscular and powerful [body]. And people always thought it was a weakness instead of a strength.
That pressure had a major affect on Johnson, especially because, as she explained, “gymnastics is such a perfection-driven sport.” “I was always looking to be ‘perfect’ for everyone,” she told me. “I thought it would help me to succeed … and I thought that’s what the judges wanted, so I was always thinking about it.” It took a number of years away from the sport for Johnson to move past that toxic dynamic. She said that she knew she wanted to help change things when she saw how the intense focus on appearance was affecting younger gymnasts, including girls that she coaches and mentors.
Johnson and Dove are encouraging people to get involved with the #MyBeautyMySay campaign by calling out media outlets that focus their coverage of women’s athletics on appearance rather than performance. Dove has been collecting samples of this kind of coverage since June, and you can check out many examples (honestly, it’s a depressingly large number of examples) at the campaign’s website. You can add your voice to the conversation by tweeting media outlets with the hashtag #MyBeautyMySay.
In addition to the #MyBeautyMySay campaign, Johnson’s got a lot of cool stuff going on right now. She married NFL player Andrew East in April (“I’m pretty excited about that!” she said), she recently released a YA novel, and she’s heading to the Rio Olympics in August.
“I’m definitely most excited about the USA girls, the gymnastics team,” she said. “I know them all really well and got to watch them qualify and be named to the team. Going down to see them perform will be pretty cool.” When I asked what advice she’d give to the incoming team — made up of Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian, Laurie Hernandez, and Aly Raisman — Johnson kept it simple: “Soak it all in. Have fun. Enjoy what [you] have worked for [your] whole lives, but try to stay focused at the same time, because there are so many distractions.”