Shawn Johnson on Body Shamers and Getting Healthy: ‘It Hasn’t Been Easy’

(Photo: Getty Images)

There’s a reason why Shawn Johnson is still one of America’s most beloved gymnasts.

Sure, the 23-year-old — who’s twice won the Teen Choice Award forChoice Female Athlete — brought us to tears when she took home a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But it’s her charisma and love for her fans that’s hooked her millions of social media followers, eager for glimpses into her daily life. 

There’s no doubt Johnson’s been busy lately: She’s in the throes of wedding planning and she’s partnered with wedding-planning site WeddingWire on its #JustSayYes campaign, helping couples to celebrate and share their own engagement stories. (Johnson’s own engagement moment? Totally adorable.)

She’s also been busy running her healthy living website, The Body Department. On the surface, it may seem obvious that Johnson, who inspired a legion of young girls to follow in her springy footsteps, would be passionate about helping people live healthy lives. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that her passion is rooted in something more serious — her own struggles to stay healthy through an incredibly public struggle with her weight and confidence.

The site’s been live for about a year, and provides informative — and fun — ideas for staying active and living a fit life. “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,’” Johnson tells Yahoo Health. “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.”

While it may seem like an easy transition from Olympic athlete to fitness buff, Johnson’s road has been bumpy. “I’ve kind of gone through the gamut when it comes to health,” she says. “I’ve hit lows with — I don’t want to say diagnosed eating disorders — but eating disorders. And then I’ve gone the other way, where I’ve rejected fitness,” she says. “[I’ve] kind of gone through the whole education system, all the nutritionists, and now I’m finally healthy.” It took her an injury — and a lot of self-reflection — to get to the mindset she has today.

Johnson grew up “fitness-obsessed,” competing as a gymnast and winning a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics at age 16. After that, she took a break from gymnastics and competed on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, winning season 8 of the TV competition in 2009 and placing second in an All-Star edition in 2012. She loved dancing, but the sudden shift from the gymnastics world to Hollywood left her exposed to body-shaming critics. It didn’t help that she felt like she was constantly struggling to stay fit after retiring from gymnastics.

“When I first went on [DWTS] I was 16, and I turned 17 on the show,” Johnson says. “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.” To cope, she researched quick weight-loss fixes online, even trying detoxes and juice cleanses. None of it worked.

Another challenge that Johnson didn’t expect after she retired from gymnastics: Not knowing how to work out. Sure, she underwent demanding training for the Olympics and for DWTS, but when all that was over, she realized she didn’t feel confident knowing what to do in a gym. “I could get on a treadmill and run, but I didn’t know how to lift weights or how to work out,” she says. “I could go do a handstand against a wall, or go do gymnastics, but I didn’t know how to work out.” After DWTS, Johnson decided that she was done pushing herself to the point of exhaustion — and she quit working out.

Her fitness boycott lasted about a year, until she was jolted out of it by a skiing injury that “tore everything” in her knee. “When I got hurt and had to stop everything, the first thought that I had was, ‘What if I could never do gymnastics again?’” Johnson says. “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.’” 

She had a heart-to-heart with her former gymnastics coach, who asked her the last time she worked out. “I told him it was probably a year. And he was like, ‘I can tell. And we’re probably going to need to start over for a while,’” she recalls. “It was a rude awakening.”

Now, Johnson says she loves exercising and the feeling of accomplishment that comes with it. She’s even picked up running, and has completed eight half marathons — though a full marathon is still on her to-do list. “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!” Johnson says. “But you see people of so many sizes and ages cross the finish line and I’m like, ‘OK, you can do this.’”

She’s also in the midst of a return to the gymnastics floor (though her knee injury has kept her from practicing recently). “I’m getting back into it. Not to compete, but there’s a tour next year that I could potentially be doing,” she says. Plus, she’ll be at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio, cheering on the U.S. team, which she says has “some of the strongest girls I’ve ever seen.”

Johnson has also established a healthier, more sustainable day-to-day routine: She eats healthfully, having eggs and gluten-free toast for breakfast and then salads, chicken, and fish for lunch and dinner. She’s also a fan of protein shakes, particularly ones with frozen banana, almond milk, a bit of peanut butter, and chocolate protein. Workout-wise, she’s on a spin kick right now — “it’s my favorite” — though she also mixes in running or general exercise at the gym.

And Johnson, who once felt totally out of place working out, is now a certified trainer. “I originally did it for myself to learn, and to learn all the details, but I love training. I coach gymnastics a lot, clinics. I just want to take it further,” she says. But as much as she loves coaching, she can’t see herself coaching at the Olympic level. "Having gone through it, I don’t think I could ever be that strict on a girl in gymnastics. I’m more like the fun side of the clinics and camps.”

In fact, it’s because of the young girls she’s coaching that Johnson’s so outspoken about her own struggles. Once, she says, she took a girl she was coaching to Dairy Queen to celebrate after a meet, and the young gymnast told her she couldn’t order an ice cream because it would make her fat. It’s moments like those that spurred Johnson to take a stand and put balanced, fun advice on healthy living out into the world. 

“The most important thing that I would have wished had been ingrained in me when I was little, is everything in moderation,” Johnson says."It’s OK to have cookies. It’s OK to have ice cream. It’s OK to indulge, or not. Everything in moderation.”

f Johnson’s candor regarding her struggles is surprising, it’s because she hopes to help others reach her same level of OK-ness. "I’d rather share my story than know someone else is going through what I did,” she says. “It’s not hard [to talk about it] anymore, just because I’ve gone through all of it.”

The difficult part, she says, has been getting to this point. “When people see athletes do sites like [The Body Department], they think it’s easy because it’s what we’ve grown up in,” she says. "But something that I haven’t spoken a lot on is that it hasn’t been easy for me. I’ve gone through a huge roller coaster of all the ups and downs. And having gone through all that, I’m at a place where I can help kids and girls and relate to all of them, and say, ‘I understand where you’re at, and I got through it.’”

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