Beard's struggle yields crucial lesson

Despite being an Olympic athlete and Playboy model, Amanda Beard struggled with her body image. Her battle is a cautionary tale to all young women, Jen Floyd Engel says.

So Amanda Beard’s memoir — In The Water They Can’t See You Cry — dropped this week and it was jarring in its honesty, detailing how ugly and fat the Olympic swimmer believed herself to be and how these beliefs manifested themselves in cutting and bulimia and depression.

It is hard to wrap your brain around because, really, how ugly can a woman who appeared in Playboy and Maxim, dominated Olympic games, and at one point was the most downloaded athlete on the internet ahead of Anna Kournikova, really believe herself to be?

Pretty damn ugly it turns out.

“I would look at pictures of me from photo shoots and things like that and that was not me in the morning and not how I looked,” Beard told me Wednesday. “It didn't feel like when people complimented me like they were complimenting me on who I was.”

This is jarring in and of itself. What it is not is unique. Statistics and countless studies reveal many other girls and women — maybe your wife, your daughter, your sister — feel this way. The thing that makes Beard’s memoir so soul-crushing is you thought it might be different for her because of Playboy and Maxim and winning seven Olympic medals, the idea that girls could inoculate themselves from this kind of self-loathing if only they had the right body or were athletes.

And what chance do the rest of us have if that is not true? Or what chance does a 10-year-old girl have? Or say a Brittney Griner?

Women’s basketball is not my thing, but I know Griner and know the vitriol that has been thrown at the Baylor phenom for her looks. After Griner completed a 40-0 season and dominated the NCAA title game, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw tried to compliment her by saying “she’s one of a kind. I think she’s like a guy playing with women” and it quickly devolved into whether McGraw was calling the Baylor phenom a man.

This was actually a debate. No really, it was.

Hot is not Griner’s skill set. So she gets to handle anonymous commenting idiots and Twitter snarkers debating whether being 6-foot-8 with a deep voice and an ability to dunk means that she is a guy, or used to be a guy, or just looks like a guy.

What she is is a freak of nature, not unlike Heidi Klum, only Klum got the crazy hot gene and Griner got the basketball one. And we value one and not the other, so instead of being valued for what makes her exceptional, Griner is excoriated for not being somebody else’s ideal.

This is, of course, because hot has been determined to be the most important skill for women. It is more important than being smart or funny or a bad-ass basketball player or even an Olympic swimmer who is in phenomenally good shape.

In The Water They Can’t See You Cry included a particularly jarring part where Beard is told she looked too fat in a photo shoot and the two ensuing weeks of self-loathing and dieting before returning 10 pounds lighter for a redo:

“Shaky, starving and exhausted, I was desperate to know what they were thinking. I read lots of meaning into the littlest details, paranoid from too little food and too much caffeine.

“Halfway through the shoot, while we were on break, a representative, whose job it was to make sure the photo shoot stayed on message and produced the images the company wanted for the campaign approached me.

“‘You are looking really good,’ he said with a smile. ‘Really fit.’

“I represented the ideal athlete, super slim and defined. Only, this type of definition came from lack of muscle as well as lack of body fat. My look was completely unrealistic for anyone truly competing in a sport. It put me in an impossible situation: be skinny and be strong.”

Imagine the position it puts a young girl, or an old one, looking at the pictures in when they try to meet a standard that even Beard admits is unhealthy and mostly unattainable.

We have come a long way, baby, but it is still not OK to be physically flawed. Hillary Clinton was attacked for her looks, as was Sarah Palin. Hell, people attack Erin Andrews as too pretty.

This is not simply a “those jerkhole guys need to stop demeaning women” rant. We do a lot of this to ourselves. NASCAR driver Danica Patrick stars in GoDaddy commercials that suggest she is about to drop her clothes at any moment and yet somehow chafes when people call her sexy.

You can not have it both ways, selling our looks and then being mad when people comment.

I asked Beard about this dichotomy as we talked about the book Wednesday. Does she have a right to be upset about people judging her looks while posing for Playboy — which at the time lost her sponsors and had many in USA Swimming furious — or are female athletes’ looks fair game?

“Obviously, when you put yourself out there in any shape or form, you get people saying positive things and a lot of people saying negative things,” Beard said. “You can’t live your life around what other people are going to say. You have to be able to live with it.

“I think we are put on a completely different scale. As a female, we don't take those kind of comments nearly as well as men do. I don't know how to explain it. They razz each other about things and are OK with little jabs. We are females and a little more emotional about things. When people talk about something like our appearance, it is a really low blow and rude and not OK to do.”

And by Beard posing in Playboy and Danica pimping GoDaddy, does that make Griner and really all female athletes' looks fair game?

In a word: No. In two: Hell no.

No more than a rapper adding the “n” word to lyrics makes that word fair game. It means one person has made a choice for himself. Of course, this does not stop the idiots. The ugly comments about the appearances of women are everywhere, the stuff about Griner just being the nadir.

“I don’t want to see any of that garbage. I don’t want to hear about it, because it’s just not right. It’s not healthy,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey told reporters before the championship game. “This is someone’s child. This is a human being. She didn’t wake up and say make me look like this, make me 6-foot-8 and have the ability to dunk. This child is as precious as they come. … The stuff she’s had to read about, the stuff she’s had to hear, the stuff people say about her, it’s got to stop. That stuff’s got to stop.”

The message that Beard wanted to send by writing the memoir, which admittedly took her back to painful times and toxic relationships and self-loathing, was that we as individuals have the power to stop this.

Stop hating yourself.

Stop letting an anonymous comment, or a guy in your class, or a mean girl, dictate how you feel about yourself.

Stop pretending what you look like is who you are.

Stop comparing yourself to a magazine because that incredibly skinny woman whose body you would kill for is probably a lot like Beard was — starving and miserable, feeling fat and ugly.

It is jarring that a former Playboy model and Olympian would feel this way. It is also freeing. And what Beard would tell the 10-year-old girl is “it is not just you, you are not alone in feeling that way, and it gets better.”

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