Shawn Johnson's critics are only making her stronger.
The 28-year-old Olympic gymnast recently opened up to PEOPLE about her body image issues and says that though the criticism she gets on social media previously made those struggles “harder,” she now views them as “a challenge.”
“I used to see the criticism as reasons why I should change and why I should feed into my insecurities,” she says. “Now I see them as a challenge to prove to little girls and women everywhere that you can never listen to haters, and you have to just be you.”
In June, Johnson told fans about her past struggles with disordered eating in a YouTube video titled, Body Image Issues: 110 Lbs. to Pregnant. She shared that the rigorous training and strict diet that she followed leading up to the 2008 Olympics gave her an unrealistic idea of what her body should look like.
She also revealed that she started taking several different kinds of weight loss pills, as well as ephedrine and Adderall. Several years later, she hired a therapist and nutritionist who helped her learn healthier habits. Her body image issues continued to resurface, however, especially when she suffered a miscarriage in 2017 and then eventually got pregnant with her 10-month-old baby, Drew Hazel.
Johnson tells PEOPLE that she wanted to share the story in part because she thought it would be “relatable.”
“I wish as a kid I had someone who had gone through that and had coached me through it and shared their journey so I didn't feel alone,” she says. “I just think it's a great way to tell more and more people that we're not all perfect.”
Johnson shares Drew with her husband and fellow athlete Andrew East, who she says helps her “stay on track” when her insecurities start taking over.
“We've had a lot of baggage conversations about my eating disorders and insecurities that I had as a kid and then through the Olympics,” she says. “I shared a lot just because he's truly my support, and whenever I kind of feel myself creeping back down a path that I don't want to go, I let him know, and he really helps me stay on track.”
The couple, who have recently partnered with battery brand Duracell to get the word out about the child safety feature on their lithium coin batteries, also say they are committed to making sure Drew has a positive view of herself.
"Now that I have a daughter, I feel like I have a different perspective on it, whereas before, I don't think I really understood the body image issues as a male as much," East, 29, says.
The NFL player adds, "But now it's something that I'm consciously trying to build in Drew as a positive self-image because I know that our home is probably the best chance she has at getting positive reinforcement like that."
If you or someone you know is battling an eating disorder, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237 or go to NationalEatingDisorders.org.
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