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Shawn Johnson on the one parenting challenge that 'consumes her soul'

The Olympic gymnast, who has talked openly about her own struggle with body image, doesn't want her daughter to have the same challenge.
/ Source: TODAY

Former Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson is no stranger to struggles with body image. The 28-year-old, who gave birth to her first child, Drew, in October 2019, has spoken openly about past treatment for eating disorders, as well as concerns she had about the changes her body would go through during pregnancy.

But Johnson's biggest concern of late is how to raise her daughter to feel confident in her own body.

In a recent virtual meetup facilitated by Peanut, a social networking app for moms, Johnson answered questions submitted by moms in the online community, one of which tackled how moms can instill self-confidence and positive body image in their kids.

Johnson isn't sure, but she's already thinking of a plan even though her daughter is still an infant.

"This consumes my soul," Johnson said of the topic. "I think it's because of gymnastics and insecurities and eating disorders and everything I had my whole life. My biggest fear is that Drew will let someone else tell her what to think of her and I hate it. And I don't know — how do you teach a kid not to allow that?"

Johnson says as a child, she was bullied — called a boy for having a boy's name and body-shamed by her peers for her petite, gymnast's body.

It was her own mother who helped her during those emotional times.

"I remember I would come home just crying after school and I would be like, 'Mom, I want to change my name. I want to quit gymnastics,'" Johnson recalled. "She taught me literally everything. Like, 'You're not supposed to look like them. You're not supposed to be like them.' She was always like, 'God made you different. You're supposed to be different and that's a beautiful thing.'"

Johnson hopes to do the same for her own daughter, adding that pregnancy, childbirth and her postpartum recovery completely changed the way she views her own body.

"I feel more confident about my body than I ever have — I love it," said Johnson, who laughed out loud when one Peanut user asked her how her workouts have been going since Drew's birth. "I'm starting to catch myself a little bit more kind of saying, 'Oh, I want to start working out. I want to feel strong. I want that muscle back.' But I still have that sense of feeling confident about my body because this body gave birth. To a kid. And I love that."

Johnson already has some ideas for guiding Drew's concept of body image.

"I think they learn by example, so I want to try to be so incredibly aware not to say stuff about my own body," she said. "But then I also know that's not 100% realistic because at the end of the day, we're all critical of ourselves and she's going to catch me saying something. So then, I want to learn how to explain it to her — how that's the bad side, and you don't want to listen to it."

Nichole Wurth, a life coach, says mothers can shift the narrative of body image and teach kids to value themselves.

Wurth, who has a 4-year-old son, says it's important for women to realize the amazing things their body does for them constantly, regardless of the negative things they may think or say about it.

"Society can make us think our bodies are just something to look at, but that's not the truth," Wurth told TODAY Parents. "The truth is our bodies are strong, amazing and capable. Our bodies give us the ability to enjoy being outside, to hug each other, to look into another person's eyes, to hear 'I love you.' We couldn't experience any of these things if it weren't for our bodies."

Wurth says the key to shaping children who value their bodies is to help them understand their bodies are always talking to them.

"Your body has wisdom and can help guide you through everything from food choices to friend choices," said the Colorado mom. "If kids can start seeing their bodies as their friend and know their bodies have a voice — it changes everything."

Wurth says it's important to teach kids to move their bodies out of a desire to feel energetic and have mental clarity, not out of shame, punishment or a desire to force their bodies to change.

Consider exercise as "a gift we give ourselves," Wurth says. "We exercise because when we move our bodies regularly, we're stronger and we laugh more. This is why I tell my son we move — to be strong and happy. We don't do it to look a certain way — we do it because it makes us feel good."

And for moms, like Johnson, who worry about making negative comments about their bodies in front of their kids? It's all about giving yourself grace, Wurth says.

"Sure, it's going to happen, you're going to slip or say things that are not in alignment with this new way of orienting with your body, but it's OK to sit down and have a conversation, to say, 'Oops that is not what I meant to say. I'm going to start saying positive things to my body. Mom made a mistake, no one's perfect, let's rewind and change it."