Olympian Shawn Johnson: ‘gaining weight & being [criticized] was difficult’

Sports Humanitarian of the Year Awards 2015
Former Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson is 23 years old now, which just makes me feel old. I remember her from the 2008 Olympics, where she won gold on the balance beam, and then in 2009 on Dancing With The Stars, when she took home the trophy. Back on DWTS she was just 17 years old, she was coming off of a grueling training schedule, and she gained a little weight. Mean people on the Internet noticed and it was hard for her. She was young and trying to figure out her place in life after her sports career was winding down. It sounds like Shawn has been able to do that. She’s engaged(!), she has a health and fitness website, she now works as a trainer and she’s able to put her tough times in perspective. I haven’t paid much attention to her in the past and I really like what she has to say here, to Yahoo health.

Creating a heath and fitness blog: I felt like every site you went to, there was a fad, or a trend, or a diet, or ‘look like this girl on the red carpet,’ or ‘the only way you could become good enough is if you do this,’ For me, it was kind of like, what if I could build a place for these girls to go that was just as cool, but there is no negative association? It was health, and beauty, and fun, and ‘you’re perfect the way you are — but here are some workouts.’ And it kind of took off.

On her own struggle with her body: When I first went on [DWTS], I was 16, and I turned 17 on the show. Going from this strict, regimented schedule to going through puberty on national TV and gaining weight, and just being kind of a huge target for criticism, was just really difficult for me.

She had to learn how to work out without doing gymnastics: I could go do a handstand against a wall, or go do gymnastics, but I didn’t know how to work out. When I got hurt and had to stop everything, the first thought that I had was, ‘What if I could never do gymnastics again? That was never a thought that I had before — I was still healthy, I could still do things. When it was almost taken away from me, I was like, ‘I have to give it one more shot. I want to [run a full marathon] … but it also sounds miserable. Every time I’ve passed a half-marathon finish line, I can’t imagine doing a full one! But you see people of so many sizes and ages cross the finish line, and I’m like, ‘OK, you can do this.’

[From Yahoo! Health]

I feel so bad for these incredible athletes who get disparaging comments about their bodies. This reminds me of Lindsey Vonn claiming that she’s “twice the size of anyone” on a red carpet, which just sounds ridiculous to me. She’s muscular and looks like she kicks ass and takes names. That’s why I work out, to get a body like that. Good for Shawn for touting exercise for its own sake.

I checked out Shawn’s website, The Body Department (not a plug), and she has free hip hop and dance workouts among a lot of other great content and workouts. The posts are culled from other sources, hopefully with the original content owner’s permission. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me because I’m always looking for new dance workouts. I did the routine for Dawin’s Dessert (which we also do at Zumba so it was a little tricky to force myself to do other moves) and it was so much fun! I think I found a new source for YouTube workouts. (Also check out XHit for ab/strength moves and BeFit for cardio.) It’s refreshing to hear a celebrity say she’s promoting body positivity and healthy living who actually delivers.

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photo credit: WENN.com and Getty

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55 Responses to “Olympian Shawn Johnson: ‘gaining weight & being [criticized] was difficult’”

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  1. Sara says:

    The other thing is that gymnasts have always been encouraged to keep as childlike a frame as possible, to be lighter on the beam for example. I’ve read a few bios of gymnasts, and as soon as they got their periods, or developped breasts, their whole routines were thrown out of rythm. Ever since the 60s and 70s, more curvacious physiques have almost disappeared from the gymnasium, and these very short, compact, flat-chested girls are the norm. So Shawn Johnson’s trauma , especially on a mediatized stage, of going from one body shape to another must have been huge.

    • Regina Phelange says:

      Former gymnast here. Yup, your centre of gravity is affected and you almost have to relearn your skills. I remember when I hit 100 lbs. my coach gave me at talking to about my diet.

      • Brittney B. says:

        Yes! I was such a skinny kid, and my coach told me I could stand to lose 5 pounds… when your body is still growing, weight gain isn’t always something you can control! And starving yourself isn’t an option when you need energy to train. It’s a lose-lose thing for so many child athletes.

      • swack says:

        Totally agree. My daughter did gymnastics, not high level but some competition. Every time she had a growth spurt I knew it because it threw off her cartwheels on the beam. It’s a tough sport.

      • mp says:

        My friend developed an ED because of gymnastics…lost her period, was really miserable, obsessive. I wonder if male gymnasts get the same speech?

    • Bridget says:

      It’s also why they’re so young.

      • Louise177 says:

        I’m a gymnastics fan and it has changed some the last 10-15 years. A lot of the top gymnasts are in their late teens, early 20’s. There’s an age restriction of 16 to do elite gymnastics. So instead of ending their careers most are just starting and haven’t peaked yet. Gymnasts are also getting taller. It’s not unusually to see gymnasts 5’3-5’5. That may not sound like much but being over 5ft used to be unusual. I’ve heard a lot of female athletes say they are much bigger on red carpets. Actresses, singers, etc usually try to keep thin while athletes are more muscular. In non-celebrity terms, Shawn probably looks normal. But compared to other celebrities, she looks heavy.

  2. Kate says:

    It’s interesting to me that she says she went through puberty while on DWTS. It just goes to show what a restricted diet these girls are on if it can delay puberty for that long. Good luck to her.

    • Brittney B. says:

      Just posted a similar comment before seeing yours… my puberty was delayed by figure skating, so I get it. And can’t IMAGINE going through my overnight developments while on national TV… my god.

      I’m not so sure it’s the “restricted diet”, though. I wasn’t on a restricted diet at all; my metabolism was just that of a child athlete, and so was my figure (or lack thereof). In fact, I ate lots and lots of carbs to keep up my energy levels for hours of training every day. I think the physical demands take an underestimated toll on growing human bodies… plus, you can’t get away with eating the same way after you stop competing, but it takes some time to adjust your diet accordingly.

      • Bridget says:

        I wonder if Shawn Johnson was eating “lots and lots of carbs”. There is immense pressure on these elite level gymnasts to stay as small and compact as possible, and on as small a frame as Shawn’s any weight gain at all would be noticeable. Consider how many gymnasts have talked about the fact that they didn’t menstruate regularly – that means their body isn’t taking in sufficient nutrients. Female Athlete Triad is a concern for young women athletes of all walks of life, let alone someone under the pressure of making an Olympic team (it’s also why so many young gymnasts are susceptible to stress fractures). But keep in that professionals absolutely do know what a toll this training takes on young bodies, many people (the athlete, coaches, etc) just think it’s worth the trade-off.

  3. zimmer says:

    She is so lovely. More striking than I remember. Her smile is gold.

  4. Locke Lamora says:

    She is a woman – if se gains weight, people will be horrible. It’s the world we live in.

    And she’s 23 and engaged – that is very very young.

    • SloaneY says:

      She’s 23, not 18. Just because someone isn’t ready til 40 doesn’t mean others can’t be ready much earlier.

      • Locke Lamora says:

        I think anything under 26 is very young. But, I’ve been watching Say Yes To The Dress, and it seens like Americans, on average, get married younger than people in my country.

      • Kitten says:

        It seems young to me too but that’s because I was still acting like a teenager at that age. Shawn seems really mature..her fiancée is cute!

    • swack says:

      Twenty three is not very young to get engaged. And just because they are engaged doesn’t mean they are getting married in the next 6 months.

      • Tiffany :) says:

        I agree, SWACK. A lot of people find long term loves in or right after college. 23 sounds young, but when I think about it as being after college it doesn’t sound so bad. After college I was a woman in charge of my life, not a girl. Not as wise as I am now (wink), but fully an adult nonetheless.

    • Jenns says:

      I think 23 is way too young to be engaged and getting married. There is no need to rush things at that age.

      • Nancy says:

        It all depends upon the people involved. I got married at 20 and have been married 16 years. But, I think 30 sounds about right to me….but then again, it’s up to the individuals. On the subject matter….those girls are on such a grueling schedule and God knows what pills they are being fed. Geez remember Keri Shrug, she had a voice like Minnie Mouse at 19. Anyway, now it’s her time to be a real woman and live a hopefully normal life.

      • Chinoiserie says:

        I have many friends who started dating when they were teens, got engaged around 20 and are now getting married in yearly 20s. If you have have over 5 year relationship, you are not immature and you have same goals why wait just because you are young?

      • ddqasshahhh says:

        I remember when women were old maids at 25.

    • Brittney B. says:

      I agree that everyone’s different, but I don’t think 40 is the only other alternative… that’s a bit extreme.

      I see where both of you are coming from, though. 23 seemed young to me too… but then I thought about my own situation and realized it really DOES depend. I met my current boyfriend right after I turned 22, and we moved in together the same year. We’re still together 6 years later. Within that time, friends and family members (some older than us, some younger) have gotten engaged, married… and divorced. Sometimes I think the marriage part contributes to the unraveling.

      • SloaneY says:

        It just makes me laugh when people (especially on this site) seem to think 18 is this magical turning adult age and that as long as you’re an adult you can make all the bad choices you want, but getting married! Everybody’s all, omg, anything in your twenties is waaaay to young to get married.
        As in everything in life, it really depends on your own maturity level and life experience.

    • lucy2 says:

      23 seems young to me too, but I think it does depend on the person and the relationship.
      She probably lived a more grown up life, with all the training and competing from such a young age, so she might be more mature than your average 23 year old.

      • WinnieCoopersMom says:

        I agree with this. I once saw an Olsen twin special where the interviewer was asking a psychologist why they would both have these long-term relationships with much older men and she was like well look at what the Olsens had accomplished by age 21, they were these super successful business women who were forced to grow up fast from the time they were babies and because of that, they were emotionally much older than their age. I imagine Shawn and these other pros like her have been through so many obstacles and had to mature so quickly at a young age, that her 23 might be like an average person’s 28/30.

    • Falula says:

      I got engaged at 23 after almost 5 years with my then-boyfriend. By that time we had already been through some serious stuff together, including him having cancer. Nine years later, we’re expecting our third child and have never been happier together. I think it has everything to do with the maturity, commitment, communication, goals, etc of each couple. We have friends who have done things similarly but others that are just now getting married in their early/mid-30’s and no one is “right” versus “wrong.”

      • Bridget says:

        Engaged at 23 here, too. Married at 24, still together and happy at 34. People are just nit picking.

    • littlemissnaughty says:

      She’s young but she’s also already on her second career with the first one having been incredibly successful. I would guess that she’s a lot more mature than the average 23-year-old.

      • Locke Lamora says:

        Is she? Sometimes these people who are incredibly successful profesionally from a very young age, get a bit stunned emotionally and mentally.

    • Relli says:

      meh, in Iowa that’s pretty much the standard age.

      • MMS says:

        @relli I live in Iowa and I agree and disagree at the same time. I grew up in a smallish community and most of the people I went to high school with (graduated in ’04) stayed in that town and all got married within 5 years of graduating. Granted most of them who stayed and got married also got divorced and remarried again within a year or two.
        I myself have been dating my now-fiance since I was 20, I’ll be 30 on the 30th. We’ve been together for almost 10 years and just last Jan. he finally proposed to me. When I was out looking at wedding dresses, all I could notice in the store were the other bridal parties around me and where how young they were, like under 25. I felt old and told the woman helping me that I guess I’m one of the older brides that they’ve had in there. She said, “Not really, but its Iowa, people marry younger and younger now-a-days, but I bet your marriage will last longer since those women typically aren’t with their partners as long as you have been.” I felt a little better. Especially when I’m on facebook and notice people I graduated with that are now in their late 20’s early 30’s are having their 3 or 4 or even in some cases 5th kid can’t afford them or you know they are in huge debt and are on their 3rd marriage all while I’ve been with my fiance building a lasting and stable partnership for our future.
        So yeah I personally think she’s too young and might want to stay engaged for awhile to see what happens in the future. Since I’ve noticed Iowans are super indecisive.

    • Ange says:

      I agree. It’s younger than average for my country, Australia. Here the average is about 29 for men and 28 or so for women and I think that’s not too bad. At 23 you still have so much learning to do about life and who you are….

  5. Brittney B. says:

    Thank you for covering this! I like her too, and I’m glad she’s using that public pain to help other people feel better about themselves.

    Relevant personal side-note: I was a competitive figure skater throughout childhood and adolescence, and literally within a MONTH of quitting the sport, my body type changed completely. As in… people at the rink didn’t even recognize me when I visited. Sprouting double D’s and wide hips in such a short amount of time was very, very difficult for 15-year-old me to handle. I can’t imagine if I’d trained on an Olympic level and delayed puberty even longer… and then had to stop because of an injury, AND the eyes of the world were on me, criticizing said changes, etc. etc… it must have been a thousand times harder to deal.

    People don’t always realize that those tiny little figures aren’t necessarily natural body types… when dancers/gymnasts/skaters stop training at a world-class level, their bodies make up for lost time. It can be excruciating mentally and physically. I’m so happy she’s a resilient and happy woman now.

    • mp says:

      yeah, it’s tough when you identify yourself with a sport and that sport’s body type and then you like, sprout and grow. I know two former competitive gymnasts and ice skaters who really miss being tiny. But you know what? they didn’t have periods before, so they are honestly “healthier” with more fat on their frame. We expect women to menstruate at like, 15% body fat now, it’s ridiculous.

  6. cleveland girl says:

    The problem for a lot of gymnasts is that they under 5 feet tall. 5 pounds on them looks like 20 on a taller person! When they are not constantly working out, they can put on a few pounds. And WHO cares?? She looks great!

  7. Kitten says:

    I loved what she had to say here. Gymnasts are so amazing to me and I LOVE watching the Olympic gymnasts but I always feel a bit guilty because I know how much strain they’re putting on their bodies. Good for her for being so damn strong both physically and emotionally. After years of forcing herself to fit into a mold, now is her time to kick back, relax, and have a burger now and then 😉

    • Loopy says:

      The only reason I don’t like gymnastics is the way it drastically remodels your shape and stunts your growth.

      • JenniferJustice says:

        How does it stund their growth? Not being facitious – genuinely curious. I know it can delay puberty and/or menstruation, but are you saying it stunts physical growth as in heighth? Please elaborate.

      • Kitten says:

        I totally understand, Loopy. As I said, I feel conflicted about it. I just think what they’re able to do athletically is so incredible….it’s almost irresistible to watch.

      • WinnieCoopersMom says:

        In some of the other countries, they crack the girls’ ribs at a younger age to grow their torsos to be smaller in order to prep them as potential Olympians. Not here in US, but I think Russia, Scandanavia, etc. It’s horrific.

  8. Loopy says:

    Aren’t they the most wholesome looking couple ever, so sweet.

  9. Magpie says:

    She looks great and her face glows.

  10. Tig says:

    Nadia C forever changed gymnastics for women-pre her, you would see women in their late 20s competing, with adult bodies. After Montreal, no more. I do like her a lot, along with Tara Lipinski- they both seemed to have handled the transition from pro
    athlete to regular life well.

  11. Jewbitch says:

    She’s beautiful. I was married at 23. 15 years later we still are. So…yeah…

  12. Mrs. Darcy says:

    Good for her for finding a new path and coming out of that pretty warped body image Olympian gymnasts must grow up with. Her comment about not knowing how to work out did make me wonder though – do gymnasts really not hit the gym at all, not even for strength training? I swam in h.s. and we had to lift weights and were supposed to do 500 sit ups a night (um yeah I never did) and this was just at a crappy h.s. level competition. I thought in this day and age they’d have a full body workout/ a bit of running, biking, whatever just to keep the muscles varied and stretched.

    • Bridget says:

      I think they have some bodyweight exercises in their regular training, but consider a couple of things 1) specificity of training – no traditional workout will mimic the physiological stimulus of gymnastics, and 2) the work they do is probably far more challenging and effective than lifting weights, considering how much they need to be able to throw around their own body weight. TThat’s not to say that *no* gymnasts lift weights, just that I can understand how she wouldnt.

  13. Ang says:

    She’s beautiful but short so just a few pounds makes a person look heavy. She was extremely talented she should be proud of the body that achieved all that it has.

    • JenniferJustice says:

      I just googled and she’s only 4’9″. That is extremely short. I am 5’1 1/2″ and even three pounds makes a difference in how my clothes fit. I’m lucky to have always had a pretty high metabolism, but even though, I have to watch my intake and always stay active or it catches up fast. It must be extraordinarily challenging to be thin or trim being under 5 feet. People’s expectations when they’re not in others’ shoes are crazy.

      • moomoo says:

        I am 4’11” and I used to think that it is hard for short people to look/stay trim since even a little weight gain shows. I gained 12 lbs in 2 months when I started college. I don’t think I overate much, but the weight gain was dramatic. I tried to diet but that just made me overeat, so I resigned myself to being chunky.

        Later in my 20s, I was a processed-food vegan and was slim but not overly so. When I adopted a more plant-based diet (less processed food) around age 30 I became very lean and have not had any weight gain issues since. I eat everything I want and sometimes double or triple my portions if I am getting too thin.

        I don’t exercise but I have a 6-pack if I flex my abs. Being overweight motivated me to exercise, but as a slim person I always seem to push it to the backburner even though I know it’s important for my health and bones.

  14. Lbliss says:

    Height challenged here, and I can agree that being short is very noticeable if you gain 5lbs. It’s like 15 on a regular 5’7″ person. I am sorry she had to suffer from those comments while on DWTS. She is a beautiful person inside and out and I’m going to checkout her blog stat!

  15. WinnieCoopersMom says:

    She is so pretty! And congrats to her engagement – he’s very attractive as well! Hot couple for sure.

  16. maeve says:

    Further to the comments on stunted growth, restricted eating, etc., the longterm implications can be quite severe. I remember reading an article about the Female Athletic Triad and how research showed extreme dieting coupled with the grueling demands of heavy training can cause osteoporosis. An individual doesn’t necessarily have to suffer from an ED to end up with this disease.

  17. TotallyBiased says:

    She’s so GORGEOUS! An adorable pocket Venus! Truly wish her all the best. <3
    Plus the Body Department is like a health and lifestyle site for real people (yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, GOOP.)
    The second article down right now is basically an open letter to a woman who was down on herself for taking it easy in a work out (she had a light injury) and it is down on self-shaming while understanding why people do that, plus not patronizing. I was impressed!
    Plus they have a mashed potatoes and gravy recipe that looks pretty nom nom.