It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Aly Raisman's muscles might have helped her win Olympic gold medals, but the former athlete is still making peace with her figure, calling her relationship with her body a "work in progress."
Gymnastics had a detrimental impact on how she sees herself, Raisman tells Yahoo Life. "The pressure of trying to be thinner was such a big part, unfortunately, of my gymnastics career," the 27-year-old admits. "I felt like there was so much pressure for me to be a certain size and it kind of always felt like my body wasn't enough, that I needed to be thinner and thinner."
Raisman, who started in the sport as a kid and retired in 2020, can now reflect on how the community played a part in how she's treated and viewed her body throughout most of her life.
"There's a lot of pressure in the sport to be a certain body type and it's really hard because I was balancing trying to have enough energy to be able to do the long hours of training and everything I was doing, but then also the pressure to lose weight and be thinner," she explains. "It's just a very unhealthy thing to navigate."
She's also grown aware of how gymnastics fostered a complicated relationship with puberty and didn't allow her to come to terms with the ways in which her body was maturing as a teen.
"I felt like I was kind of being pressured to lose weight when my body was naturally changing, when I was getting my period and all of the healthy things that we go through, and when we naturally put on weight, which is a healthy part of being a female," she says. "I felt like there was something wrong with my body."
A part of this negative perception Raisman credits to a general lack of education of the natural processes that young women go through. The gymnastics environment bred even more pressure and a basis for harsh comparison to other young girls going through puberty themselves.
"When I was training, I was in a leotard so it's very easy to get obsessive over a few pounds here or there and it can be very, very unhealthy very quickly," she says.
Being overly critical of each pound was something she learned from people in leadership positions. It was later reinforced as she became a female athlete in the spotlight.
"I faced a lot of scrutiny from the gymnastics world, from coaches or judges, but also scrutiny just from social media. And I can remember being 18 years old and there was a photo of me that somebody took and posted online. I remember a lot of people were saying that I put on so much weight and I looked pregnant, and I was so devastated about it, and so self-conscious about it," she recalls. "Unfortunately, I have a lot of friends who can relate to that."
Fellow gymnasts including McKayla Maroney and Simone Biles maintain a special place in Raisman's inner circle as a result of their uniquely shared experiences. "Having a support system is really important," she says. Still, she acknowledges that it's not that easy. "Especially if people you love or people that are supposed to be your support system aren't there for you and are the ones that are actually shaming you and being mean to you about your body."
This was certainly the case within the USA Gymnastics organization. Raisman was just one of many young women who felt unprotected during their time on the team. This was highlighted as she joined others who came forward to share that she had been abused by Nassar. While the former team doctor was sentenced in 2018 for 40 to 175 years in prison on sexual assault charges, Raisman says she's still working through the trauma that it left her with.
"There's so much shame and so much struggle that people go through after they've been abused. And it's not just something that people suffer in the moment," she says. "Unfortunately, it can take a really long time to kind of feel back in our body and feel safe in our body and to feel connected to who we were."
Working with Aerie has helped Raisman on this path back to feeling confident and comfortable in her own skin.
"I feel like working with Aerie has personally helped me on my journey of accepting myself because Aerie doesn't retouch any photos. I think it's really empowering to walk into a store and just to see everyone's body is unique and beautiful in their own way. And I think that's really special," she says.
The brand also aligns with Raisman's own mantra of using social media for good.
"I know social media can be toxic at times but I really think also there's a lot of amazing things about social media," she says. "I think it's great that Aerie is focusing on the positive of that, and also encouraging people to be aware of how they feel after they're scrolling through social media and making sure that we're following accounts or surrounding ourselves with things that make us feel good, that lift us up, that maybe challenge us, but not something that's making us feel bad about ourselves."
It's that same mindful approach that's allowed Raisman to come to a place of body acceptance.
"When I'm more present and I'm doing things that bring me joy, my relationship to my body is good. So I try to find things throughout the day that bring me calm or bring me joy, whether it's going for a walk outside, playing with my dog, being with people that make me laugh, gardening," she says. "Over the years, I started to get a little bit of a better handle on things that might trigger me. And I notice that if one thing bothers me it's like a ripple effect and affects my body image, it affects my insecurities, it affects me overthinking things. So I just really try to stay on a sort of routine that helps me stay on track. And I also just know that I'm human, and there's going to be days where I feel more insecure than other days, or where I feel a little bit more self-conscious. I've kind of just tried to remember, I'm also human, and if I'm having a tough day, it's okay, and the day is gonna pass."
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