Over the past year, three-time gold medal Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman says her relationship to exercise has changed drastically. "My whole life, I was always working out for just one goal, and now I think everything's a little bit different," Raisman tells Refinery29. "Now I work out just for peace of mind, and to feel good. I work out for myself."
In January 2018, Raisman gave a powerful impact statement at the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, the disgraced USA Gymnastics doctor who sexually abused hundreds of gymnasts for years. Since then, she's become a role model for survivors and an advocate for child sexual abuse prevention, teaming up with the organization Darkness To Light to provide online workshops aimed at identifying and preventing sexual abuse. Raisman has launched a capsule collection of activewear pieces in collaboration with Aerie, which launches on April 4, and 15% of the sales will go back to the nonprofit.
The nine-piece collection emphasizes strength and mindfulness, two themes that Raisman says were important in her process of healing. "I think being able to work with Aerie on this collection where every piece just means something is really special to me," she says. Ahead of the launch, Raisman spoke to Refinery29 about meditation, the importance of comfy sports bras, and why all adults need to learn about child sexual abuse.
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
As a gymnast, it seems like your leotards can be a form of self-expression, but they also have to be comfortable and allow you to move. When you’re choosing and designing activewear for workouts now, what are some things you look for in pieces?
"When I was picking out what kind of leotards I'd wear it was really fun for me, but a lot of times because I live in Boston it’s cold. I would usually always train with a leotard and leggings on, sometimes a tight long-sleeve shirt over it. For gymnastics, you have to be flexible, and if it's so cold here, it's hard to be flexible when your muscles are freezing.
"Working out is already hard enough on its own, and everyone works out for different reasons. I think a lot of people work out because it's good for your peace of mind; the last thing you want is to feel uncomfortable, or have a sports bra be too tight, or leggings feel weird. It's very important to me that these pieces really are comfortable. We tried to make the leggings as lightweight as possible, because also when you're all sweaty you don't want something really thick and heavy on you."
I think a lot of women worry about being too "showy" with their clothing choices, whether that’s wearing just a sports bra or crop top to the gym, or wearing something "revealing." This is an issue you’ve spoken about in the past; where do you think this internalized stigma comes from?
"There's so much pressure on women; I've talked about this with a lot of women who do different things. It's so disturbing, and so sad. It’s not only mean and hurtful, but it also perpetuates abuse in my opinion. Because if you're shaming women for what they're wearing, you're kind of — without meaning it, maybe, I think most people have good intentions — making it seem like you're letting the abuser off the hook, which is unacceptable.
"When a woman comes forward [about sexual abuse], and someone says, What was she wearing? She’s asking for it. Or, her outfit was revealing, you're basically enabling the abuser, and giving them an excuse — which is just unacceptable. It doesn’t matter what anybody is wearing; abuse is never okay. If you feel good in a baggy sweatshirt and big sweatpants, great. Whatever you feel comfortable with is what you should work out in.
"I hope we get to a point one day where people stop judging other women for what they wear, because there's way more important things in the world to worry about. Instead of wasting energy and judging a woman for what they're wearing, lets actually hold the abusers accountable, because it's perpetuating the victim-shaming. It's what makes men get away with their horrible crimes."
Something that I really hope a lot of kids will come to understand is that, just because an adult is nice to everybody else, doesn’t make them a good person if they're doing something to you behind closed doors.
Proceeds of your new line will go toward Darkness to Light. How has your work with the organization evolved in the past year, and what message do you hope people take away from this collaboration?
"It's really important to me to try to get as many adults to take [Darkness to Light's course], because when I watched it I was kind of at a loss for words. I was thinking, If the adults around me had taken this course, then my abuser would’ve been stopped long ago. It teaches you about grooming, about different red flags, and just even some of the basic things, [like] adults should never be alone with a child. If somebody is trying to be alone with a kid, and has favorites, or is giving someone gifts, that's a red flag. It can be very confusing for kids: if someone's giving you gifts, you think you can trust them, they're nice. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that.
"Something that I really hope a lot of kids will come to understand is that, just because an adult is nice to everybody else, doesn’t make them a good person if they're doing something to you behind closed doors. I think that's very confusing for kids, if every adult around your abuser is saying great things about them, and praising them — because the abuser is grooming the people around them, too. It's a red flag when all the adults like this person, but the children don't. I think that was sort of what happened with us: a lot of the gymnasts did not want to be treated by him, but the adults, and coaches, and everyone at USA Gymnastics just loved him. If people around us were more aware and paid attention, he would’ve been stopped a long time ago."
Tell me about your mindfulness practice. Is this a new thing or did you meditate when you were competing, too?
"It's a new thing, I really wish that I did it when I was competing. It's a really empowering time right now; it's great everyone is being so honest about what's helping them. I've been really inspired by that shift in our society, and just from hearing other people share their stories about how meditation has helped them. I pretty much do it every single day — but I'm not perfect, so there might be a couple days where I forget to do it — but I really incorporate it into my everyday routine. I used to get really bad headaches last year, I was so stressed out, and I felt like my body was really hurting me. Doing the body scan has helped me a lot. I actually launched meditatewithaly.com, which is a website you can download the app Insight Timer, and it's 15,000 free guided meditations."
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).