Aly Raisman’s photo shoot for Sports Illustrated’s 2018 Swimsuit edition has already received hundreds of thousands of social media responses, just one day after its release—but the Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast hasn’t looked at any of them. This is Raisman’s second shoot for SI Swim, but this one has added meaning. In November 2017, the 23-year-old came forward as one of many victims sexually abused by former Olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.
Posing for this shoot, she knew, would be met with mixed reactions. All too often victims are criticized for how they act and what they wear, distorted as egging their abusers on. So she knew the question would come: How you pose naked for a worldwide publication after having been sexually abused?
“I didn’t look online yesterday,” Raisman, who says she’s received social media messages to that effect in the past, tells me. “Yesterday, I just felt really at peace. I think every day you cope with everything different, and of course, I knew doing this issue, doing the ‘In Her Own Words’ photo shoot, I obviously know not everyone is going to agree with it,” she says, referring to the highly anticipated swim issue, featuring personal essays by the participants. “I know that everyone feels differently about Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. But it’s something that I really wanted to do. ‘In Her Own Words,’ was really empowering for me. Yesterday I just felt proud and I wanted to keep that [for myself.] I didn’t want to read anything online.”
Raisman’s spread features the sinewy gymnast posing in front of rocks and crashing waves in a series of Wonder Women-reminiscent poses and bathing suits. Elsewhere in the issue, she appears in another, more vulnerable photo series with other women including Paula Porizkova, Hunter McGrady, and Robin Lawley. In this series, Raisman is nude and has phrases painted across her body: Survivor. Women Do Not Have To Be Modest To Be Respected. Every Voice Matters.
“It’s hard to argue with the words I put on my body,” Raisman says, “but I know that people still think that if a woman is wearing a sexy outfit, she’s asking for it. That she deserves to be attacked. That has to stop.”
VIDEO: Aly Raisman: "Women Do Not Have To Be Modest To Be Respected"
She points to Cate Blanchett, who put it aptly: “Women like looking sexy. But it doesn’t mean we want to f—you,” the actress said during her acceptance speech at the InStyle Awards last year, in the weeks following Harvey Weinstein’s first public rape allegations.
Raisman felt empowered by that remark, adding that the Sports Illustrated shoot “was another opportunity for people to continue to have the conversation and educate people that you can be naked and abuse is still never OK. Just because you’re wearing a sexy outfit does not give anyone the right to disrespect you. It drives me nuts that not everyone gets that.”
“Being a survivor, going through something traumatic—it does not define you, it doesn’t mean I’m just going to hide at my house and never do anything again. I’m still going to do other things. I’m going to do what makes me feel strong and empowered. I think as women, sometimes we’re taught to be ashamed of our bodies. We should be proud of who we are on the inside and the outside.”
For Raisman, one of the most important parts of healing was learning to be compassionate with herself, whether about her self-confidence, her fashion choices, or anything else. Every day, she feels comfortable with something different. “Sometimes I feel like I want to wear a turtleneck and sometimes I want to wear a sexy dress. And that’s OK. Confidence in your body isn’t something that comes overnight. I go through different phases. I’ve learned it’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to ask for help. In fact, you should ask for help.”
So to prep for a photo shoot—an overwhelming experience for anyone—whether it’s fully clothed, in a bikini, or in the nude, Raisman has created a toolkit to help build her up:“When I’m looking in the mirror I try to pick out things I like about myself rather than what I don’t like. When you meet people, people see you smiling and your personality and they’re not looking at what you think is a flaw,” she says.
Other self-care rituals in her routine: coloring, taking hot baths, and reading. “I really like boxing,” Raisman says about her current workout regime. “I was taking tennis lessons in the summer, but I’m really bad. Like, horrible. Awful,” she says. And then comes that self-compassion she’s been working toward. “You just have to learn to appreciate your body. My body has been through a lot and I’m aware that my body is not going to look like it did at the Olympics for the rest of my life. I’m just going to embrace what I look like. Nobody’s body is perfect and that’s OK.”