Shawn Johnson East Feels 'Sad' Reflecting on Olympic Podium Due to Past Eating Disorder
"When I started to starve myself and jeopardize my performance, but still win a gold medal, that is probably one of the worst things that could have happened," the retired Olympic gymnast said
Shawn Johnson East is reflecting on her time at the 2008 Olympic Games and the eating disorder she developed during her years competing.
While appearing on the Dinner Party with Jeremy Fall podcast Thursday, the 29-year-old retired Olympic gymnast said that she feels "very sad" looking back at "that kid that was on the Olympic podium."
"In one sense, I was so healthy. I think I was more mature and I had a better group of people around me to deal with everything that I was going through," Johnson East said, before noting how the "flaws" of the sport, such as not having nutritionists and psychologists around as a young athlete, helped perpetuate her disorder.
"... For me as a kid, having this thought of, 'Maybe if I looked thinner, these judges might like my performance better'… I didn't know how to get that result in a healthy way, except for, 'If I eat less, I'll lose weight,'" she recalled. "... And because of that, I developed that eating disorder."
"When I started to starve myself and jeopardize my performance, but still win a gold medal, that is probably one of the worst things that could have happened, because that told me it was worth it," Johnson East — who is currently pregnant with her second child, a boy — added.
For the accomplished athlete, her achievements in sport constantly made her feel pressure to perfect all other aspects of her life as well.
"And so when it came to boyfriends, when it came to Dancing With the Stars, when it came to a photo shoot, if I starved myself, I would get the respect of whoever it was that I was dealing with," she said. "And so dealing with that was really hard."
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Continuing to suffer from 2008 to 2012, between the Beijing Olympics and the London Olympics, Johnson East said she was trying to be "perfect" in every aspect of her everyday life.
"I struggled so much with eating disorders, mental illness, perfectionism, because I was trying to transition from being what gymnastics would deem as 'perfect' to a normal human being," she said. "... The only thing I've ever known for 16 years, the only thing that I've ever made a decision based off of is gymnastics. Now that I didn't have that, I felt lost as a human being."
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During the candid conversation, Johnson East also explained how her eating disorder made her feel as though she had no control over her brain.
"I felt like someone had invaded my mind, and was literally thinking for me. And it was this active effort I would have to put forward every single day to kind of battle that voice," she said. "And when you get tired, you can't battle it any longer, and it's like, 'I need a binge, I need a purge, I need to not eat, I need to eat so much,' and I would just spiral so much that you lose control as a human."
But a change came about when Johnson East then decided to retire before the 2012 Olympic trials, which offered a "turning point" for the gymnast.
"I was so happy and so free, to be not a part of that world anymore. And that's where I met my husband, and he completely changed my life," she said.
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.