LONDON (Reuters) - “So English,” Shawn Johnson exclaimed as she eyed a platter of juicy sausages during a glitzy Olympic party.
When the waitress asked the American: “Would you like one, mam?” Johnson did not hesitate for a second before shaking her head to turn down the offer.
This was a party where the recently-retired Johnson could let down her shiny blonde locks as she did not have to worry about competing for Team USA at the London Games.
But her instant reaction was perhaps indicative of the body image demons Johnson has wrestled with for years.
It not only left Johnson feeling “broken down” but also wishing she had more in common with team mate and fellow Olympic champion Nastia Liukin because she knew “if I looked like her, then some of the higher authorities would be happier”.
Johnson lit up sporting arenas around the world during a career in which she won three world titles and four Olympic medals in 2007 and 2008, but behind the megawatt smile and bubbly personality she suffered the kind of insecurities that ruined the lives of many gymnasts.
Standing only 1.55 meters tall and casually dressed in a cream sleeveless blouse, stretch jeans and beige boots, the 20-year-old Johnson was still turning heads in a venue packed with dozens of Olympic champions.
After posing for countless photographs, Johnson sat down with Reuters for an interview arranged by Olympic sponsors Procter and Gamble to discuss an issue that she feels gymnastics authorities turn a blind eye to despite it having plagued the sport for decades.
REUTERS: What caused your body issue problems?
JOHNSON: “We have a cookie cutter image that is deemed acceptable and it’s almost like if you aren’t that image, you aren’t accepted in the world today and I fell into it. Especially in gymnastics, where you’re in a leotard, you’re critiqued. I was growing up in a national world stage, everything that happened, people had an opinion and shared it. I wasn’t cookie cutter, so I didn’t make the acceptable image and it got to me.”
REUTERS: If you have insecurities about your body image, is gymnastics the wrong sport to get into?
JOHNSON: “I definitely think gymnastics is what brought it out, the insecurities. But I think gymnastics is what helped it as well. Because it strips you down and makes you find confidence in yourself. It was hard.
“But no matter what sport I would have been in, it might have been the same. But gymnastics is a little extreme though. Because you are so young, and you are told so much at such a young age that is messes with your mind.”
REUTERS: Who was to blame for the way you felt?
JOHNSON: “Society, stereotypes. I don’t think it was one person. It was a simple mentality in our sport that the lighter you are, the better you look and the better you do. A lot of people are surprised (that I feel this way) but everybody has insecurities. I never felt more empowered and confident than when I was performing.”
REUTERS: Were you ever bullied about your body shape?
JOHNSON: “Growing up I wasn’t, but bullied in sense of remarks from the (American) press and remarks from people during (reality show) Dancing With the Stars, I was. It broke me down and tore me apart but made me find strength within myself to build myself back up. I feel stronger now than I’ve ever been.”
REUTERS: How haunted were you by your demons?
JOHNSON: “It’s an issue that just kind of built itself, and built itself, and built itself until it exploded, especially on Dancing With the Stars. I told myself, ‘if you aren’t happy with yourself, then you need to find a way to fix that’.”
REUTERS: Did the show make your insecurities worse?
JOHNSON: “Dancing With the Stars made it worse because in gymnastics, I’d earned the respect of the world by how hard I had worked. DWTS was more glamorous, people weren’t as forgiving.”
REUTERS: Your rivalry with Nastia in gymnastics was often hyped up and you were often on the podium together. At any point did you ever wish you had a figure like Nastia?
JOHNSON: “Sometimes I did just because I knew that’s what some people wanted. But it’s not what I wanted. I wanted it for them. I didn’t want it for me. I liked my body, I liked my power, I liked my strength. But I knew if I looked like her, then some of the higher authorities would be happier.”
REUTERS: Did you ever struggle with any eating disorders?
JOHNSON: “I never did, I swear on everything on that. I was luckily strong enough to not fall into any of that. The mental part of it can be harder because I kept everything to myself. I was six percent body fat and I still thought I had to change something. That is so wrong. It’s scary and so many girls go through it and they shouldn’t.”
REUTERS: Do you still see gymnasts suffering from eating disorders?
JOHNSON: “Honestly? Yes. The stereotype is the coaches force them and it’s something that’s pushed upon them, but it’s not. I can honestly tell you my coaches never did like that. It’s just the mentality of the sport.
“When you are that young you have society’s image of the thinner you are, and the lighter you are, the higher you flip. It’s something that’s brought on by yourself.
“I see my younger team mates, some of them are eight and they are watching what they eat, they are looking in mirrors and sucking in their stomach. It breaks my heart as it shouldn’t be like that.”
REUTERS: Do you ever say anything?
JOHNSON: “Oh yeah, I take them all out for ice cream. When I take them out, they ask questions like ‘What should I eat?’ ‘What will help me do better?’ It’s just the education. If they had the education, it would make sense to them.”
REUTERS: Are gymnastics officials doing enough to address this issue?
JOHNSON: “I don’t think so. It’s lack of education. They see it as we’re so young, we’ll get through it, we’ll grow up and grow out of it. It should be the complete opposite.
“When the girls are just starting and getting towards the elite level, they should be going through nutrition classes, psychology classes and having a good support system around it. I feel we’re left to fend for ourselves too much and that’s an issue.
REUTERS: If you were given the task of tackling the problem, what would you do?
JOHNSON: “I would give everybody a nutritionist. It all starts with what they eat. They know if they are thinner and lighter, then they’ll probably look better in a leotard and flip higher. To them, if they eat less, they’re thinner.
“We fall short at the beginning by (not telling them) what’s healthy and what’s right and that sets them up for the rest of their life.”
REUTERS: How did your family feel about your battles with your body image?
JOHNSON: “My family had to sit back and watch me go through it all and not know how to fix it. Being as you’re so young and you’re kind of put in the hands of other people, they couldn’t fix it. They only knew what I told them like going into a cafeteria and eating as fast as I could so that nobody saw.”
REUTERS: Did you parents want you to get out of gymnastics because of this?
JOHNSON: “They never said it but I’m sure, yes. If you saw your child struggling through something, why wouldn’t you. They’re very relieved I’ve quit.”
Editing by Clare Fallon