Just a few days ago, Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman was in a courtroom in Michigan facing Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics doctor who was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual assault and abuse charges.
Raisman delivered an impassioned statement that not only addressed Nassar’s behavior and its impact on the hundreds of young gymnasts who have offered their own stories, but USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee, which she says enabled Nassar.
Raisman, who has just been named an Aerie #RoleModel alongside Yara Shahidi and Rachel Platten, spoke to WWD about the testimony, self-acceptance and her future as a gymnast.
WWD: What pushed you to give this testimony?
Aly Raisman: It was honestly something that I decided to do at the last minute. He was sentenced around a month ago and I was planning on going and then the judge denied anyone to speak. Then I released my statement to The Players’ Tribune. I was watching everything over the news and said I didn’t want to go. Just seeing his face was traumatizing and I felt like it wasn’t going to be the best thing for me. But then I watched Kyle Stephens and her quote, “Little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world,” really inspired me. I watched so many brave young women and I called my mom and said I have to be there.
WWD: How did you gain the courage to do it?
A.R.: From the moment I was there, I kind of just blocked everything out. I did what I do when I compete. When I spoke he looked at me the whole time, which was shocking. When other girls spoke he had different reactions, so I wasn’t expecting that. Right after my speech I felt so sick. I was so exhausted and had a horrible headache and as soon as I didn’t have to be strong anymore, I wasn’t. I’m so emotionally drained, even today. But I met a lot of girls who share my same experience. Someone talked about how they are afraid to go see male doctors and I have had those same fears and anxieties. So it struck a chord that we are all struggling with similar things. It was nice to connect with people. We’ve been through something so terrible and you never know what people are going through. But I’m happy with all the coverage it’s getting because one person going through this is too many.
WWD: This Aerie campaign is another way you are helping women. And as you know, Aerie is all about body acceptance. How did you deal with the pressures of being a young girl and maintaining a certain weight?
A.R.: Being a gymnast my whole life, the sport forces you from a young age to pick your body apart. Also with social media and our society, there is just so much pressure for young women. I see girls start gymnastics when they are two years old, and you overhear these young girls starting to talk about their bodies earlier and earlier. They are so aware of how they look. Every commercial is about losing weight. It’s hard to put into words how it feels when I hear an eight-year-old say her legs are too big. It makes me want to work with Aerie more so these young girls don’t look at these retouched ads and think it’s real.
WWD: How did you overcome those pressures?
A.R.: It’s important to communicate with people and share how you are feeling. Growing up, I would talk to my mom about feeling insecure. And I know there are people who aren’t close with their moms, but try to find someone you trust and surround yourself with people who lift you up. And there is no such thing as an ideal body type. There is no point in stressing over it. I think schools need to teach that. And teach kids how to be kind. A lot of body insecurities come from teasing and when you are young you don’t know the power of your words. It’s important to stress to young kids that your words hurt and will be remembered. How you make people feel is important.
WWD: What’s next? Do you plan on competing in the Olympics again?
A.R.: I think right now I’m just taking everything in the moment. Gymnastics is something that I care about so much and I’m really pushing for positive change in the sport. I’m really passionate about working with the younger generation so hopefully one day we can get to a point that there isn’t so much pressure on young women to have the ideal body and we can teach young women to respect each other.