Women’s Gymnastics: Perfection, Pressure, & Pity

For someone who enjoys exercise as much as I do now, it certainly hasn’t always been that way.

Perhaps it’s a 21st century American norm, but regular movement wasn’t encouraged outside of competitive sport or organised activities. To boot, trying out for sports always yielded the same results – a combination of poor hand-eye coordination, undiagnosed nearsightedness, and general shitness in athletic ability did not bode well for me; thus, here I am writing a blog post instead of showing you a cool football trick.

As such, I’d found professional athletes truly inspiring. Their strong physiques and incredible talent seemed so otherworldy to me that I found my younger self wrought with both envy and obsession every time the Olympics rolled around. Now, not so much.

2008, 6th grade. I’d been signed off from participating in gym class for being underweight. As an alternative assignment to running laps and jumping rope, I wrote an essay on caloric needs and energy expenditure. That summer, there wasn’t a single tabloid that didn’t have Michael Phelps’ 12,000-calorie-a-day diet emblazoned upon its cover. As much buzz as that questionable journalism story incited, I, a dainty 12-year-old girl, was much more interested in gymnastics, a sport I’d dabbled in previously (recall my previous comments about general athletic shitness). I watched Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin perform in Beijing and idolised them – how awesome it must’ve been to be two of the best in the world, to be fit and talented and perfect. My research on their diets yielded some generic comments like eating lots of fruits and veg, protein, and carb-loading the night before a meet. I handed in the paper without revelation about energy needs, if anything wondering how girls who were 5 years older than me could weigh the same and be considered ‘healthy.’ I continued to perceive them as perfection.

In 2012, I fell into the same mania. The US women’s gymnastics team was hyped to the max as they were expected to do well in London. Sure enough, they did, and my idea of perfection was exacerbated by the media’s fulfilment of that same message – from ad campaigns, to meeting the president, to being as fit as fit can be – these girls were perfect.

In 2016, I found myself way more interested in attending music festivals barefoot than watching professional sport (there’s that hippie phase that seems to creep its way into every one of my posts…).

And this year, in 2021, I couldn’t have cared less about the Olympics. However, being 8 months pregnant and sleeping horrendously, I’d occasionally throw it on in the early mornings for background noise, as Covid-era London at 6:30 am seems to have earned the moniker ‘the city that always sleeps.’ I caught snippets of the lot – taekwondo, cycling, weightlifting, gymnastics – finding myself increasingly disinterested by the sport I used to idolise in comparison to other events. I couldn’t help but suspect the petite figures in shiny leotards were a façade. This time, I felt pity.

***.

With age comes wisdom, and with that wisdom, realising that nobody’s perfect. However, it still came as a shock to me when Shawn Johnson came forward in 2015 and shared that in 2008, she’d been restricting herself to 700 calories a day, and that following the Olympics, she’d been abusing Adderall. Gymnastics seemed a little less glamorous.

I was even more shocked when Aly Raisman came forward with her allegations against Larry Nassar in 2017. She’d been out of sight, out of mind to me in the 5 years following her Olympic performance. I never expected the next time I’d see her would be a broadcast of her testimony in a courtroom, one of which personally elicited a rush of tears.

Suffice it to say, I wasn’t surprised when Simone Biles withdrew from her event last month. Was I impressed with her courage in being honest with her struggles? Hell yes. But surprised? I really can’t say I was. Clearly to be a professional athlete is to be under immense pressure, and considering the conversation sparked among other athletes resounding their own struggles following Simone’s statement, this isn’t solely an issue of women’s gymnastics. However, I can’t help but consider that from performance to physical appearance and feminine objectification, the sport encourages a unique toxicity.

I’m glad these athletes have come forward in truthfulness following their competitive years to dispel what is just another projection of perfection in the media. I’m glad that the few who have shared their struggles will only encourage honest discourse to continue. And personally, I’m glad to be an average gal who gets to spend an hour of ‘me’ time in the gym – I’m not sure I’d like to be an Olympian.

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