8 Female Athletes Who've Defined Their Own Beauty Standards
Olympians and world champions reveal how they overcame body shamers while conquering their sport
Decades of being ridiculed by body-shamers won't shake this once-in-a-lifetime athlete. Not even when in 2014, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation referred to the tennis superstar and sister Venus as the "Williams brothers," because of their muscular physique.
"I love my body, and I would never change anything about it," Williams told Self in 2016, when asked how she deals with haters and harsh comments.
"I'm not asking you to like my body," she continued. "I'm just asking you to let me be me. Because I'm going to influence a girl who does look like me, and I want her to feel good about herself."
The two-time Olympian grew up being bullied by her classmates for her muscular body.
“In fifth grade, all the boys in my class told me that I looked like I was on steroids or that I was anorexic,” Raisman told Today in 2017. “And then in seventh grade, I was wearing a tank top at school and one of the boys told me my arms were disgusting. So I didn’t wear a tank top to school ever again. Thinking about that makes me so sad because I let one kid affect how I see myself.”
More than a decade later, Raisman has a better outlook on her body.
“Now, I almost force myself to wear tank tops because you have to appreciate your body, and now people compliment my arms all the time,” she said. “You can’t let someone dictate the way you feel about yourself. It just makes me mad that I was so insecure about it for so long because my arms made me one of the best gymnasts in the world, so I would never do anything to change that.”
The American Paralympic track and field athlete shared her journey to becoming a world champion in ESPN's 2019 Body Issue. After detailing her life, including how she lost her right leg as a child to a chemical fire, Bassett touched on how men who are amputees are treated differently than women.
"We celebrate men who are amputees; a veteran is celebrated as a hero when he goes to war, loses his leg and comes home and puts one of these on," she told the outlet. "But you see a woman and it's weakness, a bodily imperfection. It's viewed as a deficiency."
"I want girls to see this and say, 'This is something that is powerful and beautiful and stunning,' " she said of her blades, which she wears to compete in competitions. "I want them to see the places you can go and the things you can overcome through sport."
The record-breaking world champ loves competing in gymnastics, but made it clear that she "didn't sign up" to be a target for body shamers.
Biles aired out her feelings in a Feb. 12, 2020, Instagram post, in which she declared she's done with the "toxic culture of trolling."
“In gymnastics, as in many other professions, there is a growing competition that has nothing to do with performance itself,” Biles wrote. “I’m talking about beauty. I don’t know why but others feel as though they can define your own beauty based on their standards.”
“I’ve learned to put on a strong front and let most of it slide,” she said. “But I’d be lying if I told you that what people say about my arms, my legs, my body…of how I look like in a dress, leotard, bathing suit or even in casual pants hasn’t gotten me down at times.”
Biles, who shared the post as part of skincare brand SK-II’s #NOCOMPETITION campaign, said she’s done with “everything in life being turned into a competition.”
“I am standing up for myself and for everyone that has gone through the same,” she said. “Today, I say I am done competing vs. beauty standards and the toxic culture of trolling when others feel as though their expectations are not met…because nobody should tell you or I what beauty should or should not look like.”
The gymnast went viral after earning a perfect 10 for her floor routine at the 2019 Under Armour Collegiate Challenge. The incredible feat might not have happened if she hadn't found the mental and physical strength to continue training after a bad back and shoulder injury in 2013. When she finally got back on the mat, Ohashi felt self-conscious about her body, and comments from a coach didn’t help.
“I was trying to work through the pain and crying literally every turn I took,” she told BBC Sport in 2019. “A coach was upset I had put on weight — he said it was why it was hurting.”
Ohashi said she felt judged about her size.
“As gymnasts, our bodies are constantly being seen in these minimal clothing leotards. I felt so uncomfortable looking in the mirror. I felt uncomfortable walking back into the gym, like there were eyes just targeted at me,” she said. “I hated taking pictures. I hated everything about myself.”
Ohashi said that the comments from coaches or jokes she made with friends about skipping meals to lose weight wore away at her mental health.
As Ohashi prepared to join the gymnastics team at UCLA, she talked to her new coach about how she was afraid of finding success in the sport again because she “correlated greatness with misery.” The coaching staff encouraged her to go to therapy.
“Coming to UCLA and being pushed to go to the psychological services, being surrounded by a coaching staff which really puts athletes as people before the sport itself, has definitely been crucial in my growing as a person and my mental health,” she said.
At UCLA, she was able to find her love of gymnastics again and nail that much-loved floor routine. Ohashi has now graduated with a degree in gender studies, and has accepted her body.
“Everybody’s bodies are different and there’s not a single body that is the perfect body because there are constant trends,” she said. “Being comfortable with the only person that matters, yourself, is something that you can forever work towards. You’re the only person that has your back and you’re the only person that has your skin 100% of the time.”
After being diagnosed with hypothyroidism, the Olympic shot put athlete started feeling drastic changes in her body.
“That was hard, because my body was going through so many changes that I didn’t know what was going on,” she told PEOPLE in 2017. “I gained over 100 lbs. that I could never lose, my hair was falling out, I was tired all the time, I couldn’t maintain muscle, I had no energy. It gave me some relief that there was something actually wrong with me and I wasn’t crazy, but it was really hard knowing that there is something wrong with my body and I couldn’t fix it.”
Throughout her struggle, Carter leaned on her sport to keep her going, which allowed her to embrace and love her ever-changing body.
“I regained my confidence by just accepting what my body is now,” she said. “Because I kept thinking, ‘Oh I’ll lose the weight, I’ll get back to where my body used to be,’ and in actuality, I have a whole different body now. And I have to relearn my body and what it does for me now, and not what used to work for me.”
That confidence helped her find the mindset to win gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and in the days afterwards when she had people doubting that she could be an athlete at her size.
“Athletes can not look the same, and be great in their individual sport,” Carter explained. “The example I like to use is Gabby Douglas. She could not flip in the air if she was built like me, but then Gabby Douglas couldn’t throw the shot put. I was built like this because I was made to throw the shot put.”
“Some people are meant to be bigger, and that’s okay. Because if everybody was built the same, it would be a little boring. We enjoy the differences in each other, and I think that’s what makes all of us beautiful.”
“It was very tough,” Douglas said of the criticism she received after her history-making success at the age of 16. “Sometimes I would be in the bathroom, bawling my eyes out, wanting to quit. I felt like I was all alone.”
Gabby’s mother and manager Natalie Hawkins remembers the teasing well. “Everyone was talking about her arms, and she became very self-conscious about how muscular they were,” Hawkins explained.
It took another pro athlete to help Douglas recognize the beauty in her muscular body: Serena Williams.
“Gabrielle saw the elegance with which Serena Williams handled all the negative criticism of her own body,” Hawkins recounted. “It was liberating for my daughter to see that. She said, ‘I don’t have to apologize to anyone about my body. My body is beautiful.’ ”
“I definitely had a moment there after I won the gold medal in 2010, where I was very self-conscious,” the Olympic skier told ABC News in 2016. “It was my first time being on red carpets and stuff like that. I was not confident in myself and the way that I looked.”
Vonn said she tried dieting in the past, but found that restriction didn’t work for her.
“I’ve kind of run the gamut of trying different things like Paleo, and I did a high-carb diet a while ago. I’ve tried everything,” she said. “You have to make healthy choices. But I have Reese’s, I have coffee, I have Red Bull. I’m not perfect all the time ... Everyone needs a treat and a break. The more you force yourself not to do that, the more unhealthy you’ll get.”
Now, Vonn says she’s at a place of body acceptance.
“I’ve just gotten to the point that I love where I am, I’m not the same size as everyone else… I’m comfortable with what I got,” Vonn said. “I think it shows in my attitude and the way I present myself. Now when I walk the red carpet, I don’t care with what everyone else thinks.”