Aly Raisman has proudly detailed how her nude photo spread in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit came to represent an empowering experience for her, and how she hopes it will help change how people think about victims of sexual assault.
The three-time Olympic gold medalist sat down for an interview with Refinery29 health writer Cory Stieg, discussing the naked photo shoot as well as her approach to body positivity and her own body image journey.
Aly is one of the women who have taken part in Sports Illustrated’s In Her Own Words project, which sees the subjects posing with words of their choosing written across different parts of their bodies to reflect certain aspects of their identities.
Message: Aly Raisman has proudly detailed how her nude photo spread in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit came to represent an empowering experience for her
Talk: The Olympic gold medalist (pictured on Wednesday night at the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue launch in New York City) discussed the naked photo shoot in an interview
Brave: Aly is one of several women who posed naked for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue
Making a statement: 23-year-old Aly posed for the shoot not long after taking the stand at the trial of pedophile doctor Larry Nassar
The gymnast, who is one of the many victims who suffered horrific abuse at the hands of pedophile doctor Larry Nassar, picked ‘survivor’, ‘fierce’, and ‘trust yourself’ as some of the messages she wanted to sport on her body.
She revealed that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit editor MJ Day had even opted not to be present in that moment so that the women involved in the photo shoot would feel complete freedom.
‘It was just really really cool,’ Aly told Refinery29. ‘The whole day was really empowering. I felt really strong. It felt good to put the word “survivor” across my chest and to not be ashamed of those words. I think everyone is a survivor of something. We’ve all be through something traumatic or something that’s hard.’
Aly, who delivered an incredibly powerful victim impact statement during the ex-doctor’s sentencing hearing last month, has become a vocal advocate for survivors of sexual assault, and wants her voice as well as that of others to be heard.
I stand by what I put on my body, women do not have to be modest to be respected
‘I want to try to change the conversation to where it shouldn’t be scary for people to come forward,’ she added.
‘And it is, I can tell you from personal experience, it’s very hard to come forward and to be honest about something you’ve been through that is hard.
‘We live in a social media generation where everyone’s lives seem perfect, and I want to change the conversation where if you go through something hard, or you’re currently going through a hard time, or you’re suffering in silence, I want to encourage people to use their voices and encourage everyone else around them to support them, so when people do come forward we believe them, we listen and we take proper action.
‘Because nobody deserves to be abused and nobody deserves to feel uncomfortable.’
Aly said she know from the get go that some people wouldn’t agree with the spread, but insisted she firmly stands by it and its message.
‘I stand by what I put on my body, women do not have to be modest to be respected,’ she added.
‘I stand by posing in a sexy bikini. You can be sexy. You can be wearing whatever outfit you want and still be powerful, strong, advocating for change, still be a kind, good person, and you can still be respected.
She said she is ‘very grateful’ for those who have supported her, and explained how she intends to keep working to change people’s mindsets when it comes to assault.
Bold: The gymnast posed with ‘truthful and empowering’ words written across her body, including ‘survivor’ on her chest
Team: Aly joins fellow Sports Illustrated stars Sailor Brinkley Cook, Paulina Porizkova, and Robyn Lawley who also took part in the nude shoot for the publication
Impressions: ‘For the shoots, I was excited, but also a little nervous in the beginning, because it’s still a new experience,’ Aly said
Inspiration: Aly explained that one of the messages behind the shoot is that ‘women do not have to be modest to be respected’
Advocate: Aly’s shoot allowed her to ‘take control’ in front of the camera, and gave her the chance to direct how the photos were taken
‘We still have to continue to educate other people so they understand that if you’re walking alone late at night in an alleyway, whatever outfit you are wearing, you never, ever should be attacked,’ she said. ‘And I think there are people who really believe that if you’re wearing a sexy outfit you’re asking for it, and that’s disgusting. It’s not acceptable.’
Aly has also become a voice in the body positivity movement, partnering with Aerie for an unretouched adverting campaign revealed last month.
Whatever outfit you are wearing, you never, ever should be attacked
While she is still figuring out exactly what body positivity means for her, so far, she feels that it entails ‘figuring out how to be the best version of yourself and not comparing yourself to other people’.
‘I think it’s important to respect other people, be kind to other people, stop body-shaming but also appreciate yourself, stop body-shaming yourself,’ she added. ‘It’s obviously easier said than done.
‘Every day, we wake up and we feel differently. Some days I look at myself in the mirror and I like the way I look. Other days, by accident, without realizing it, you pick yourself apart.
‘In those moments, I try to take a deep breath and realize what I’m doing and shift things, and focus on what I like about my body because its not healthy to do that. And I also think about ways to, if I feel insecure, talk about it.’
The gymnast, who has in the past said she was bullied as a young girl for her muscular frame, recounted how boys in her class would sometimes deem her body shape ‘disgusting’.
This, combined with the fact that gymnasts are often expected to be thin, led her and her teammate Simone Biles, now 20, to believe they didn’t have the ‘right bodies’ for gymnastics.
Aly and Simone have seven Olympic gold medals between them.
‘It’s kind of crazy that we didn’t think our bodies were good enough,’ Aly said, reflecting on her and Simone’s past self-doubts.
Determined: The athlete said she know from the get go that some people wouldn’t agree with the spread, but insisted she firmly stands by it and its message
Impressions: ‘The whole day was really empowering. I felt really strong,’ she said of the shoot
In her interview, Aly encouraged young women chasing their dreams to compete only with themselves and to refrain from comparing themselves to other people.
‘Trust yourself,’ she added. ‘Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, then it’s important to ask questions and to speak up. I think it’s just important to remember you have a voice and you deserve to be heard.’
Sports Illustrated’s stunning black and white photos, which include Aly’s, were shot by Taylor Ballantyne for the magazine’s ‘In Her Own Words’ project, which marks the ‘evolution’ of the iconic Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in the light of the ongoing push for women’s equality.
Aly joins fellow Sports Illustrated stars Sailor Brinkley Cook, Paulina Porizkova, and Robyn Lawley who also took part in the nude shoot for the publication.
Sailor, 19, Paulina, 52, and Robyn, 28, all stripped and turned their bodies into canvases covered with words that represent how they see themselves, with their pictures being shared with the world one week ahead of the issue’s launch.
‘I’m so excited to be a part of the issue for the second year in a row,’ Aly, who posed in an athletic-themed bikini spread last year, told Sports Illustrated.
‘This year has an extra special meaning to me, because it’s such an incredible time for women and everyone should feel as though they can express themselves however they want.
‘For the shoots, I was excited, but also a little nervous in the beginning, because it’s still a new experience. Once we started shooting, I felt comfortable because everyone on set was so supportive!’
Aly’s bikini shoot took place in Aruba, and saw her posing in front of photographer James Macari.
Featured: The gymnast also posed in a more conventional bikini spread for the issue
Return: It isn’t the first time Aly has graced the pages of the magazines; last year, she posed for an athletic-themed shoot for the swimsuit edition
Free: ‘I believe that women (or anyone) should be able to wear whatever makes them feel comfortable and happy,’ Aly said
Statement: Aly, who has become a vocal advocate for body positivity, said society ‘puts too much pressure on women and young girls to look “perfect”‘
Finding her angles: While Aly was initially nervous during the shoots, she said her team’s supportive attitude helped her relax in front of the cameras
Significance: ‘This year has an extra special meaning to me, because it’s such an incredible time for women and everyone should feel as though they can express themselves,’ Aly said
Speaking out: The gymnast, who made headlines after staring down her abuser in court while delivering her incredibly strong statement last month (pictured), wants her voice to be heard
Aly previously explained when the spread came out that her photos are meant to convey a message of respect for women.
‘I believe that women (or anyone) should be able to wear whatever makes them feel comfortable and happy,’ she added. ‘Our society puts too much pressure on women and young girls to look “perfect”, and we have to stop doing that.
‘I’m proud that SI Swim is using women of all shapes and sizes with various backgrounds. Each woman in the issue has her own unique story, and I am honored to be a part of it.’
The gymnast, who made headlines after staring down her abuser in court while delivering her powerful statement, wants to lead the way for others looking to assert themselves.
‘I take the responsibility [to be a role model] very seriously,’ Aly, who twice captained her country’s gymnastics team at the Olympics, said. ‘I am proud to be considered a role model, and I hope that by using my voice, I can help create change for future generations.
‘Everyone deserves to feel safe and heard. We must listen to those that speak up and offer our help.’
In the nude: Sailor Brinkley Cook (pictured) has joined Paulina Porizkova, Robyn Lawley, and a cast of other models also star in the nude Sports Illustrated Swimsuit spread
Work of art: As part of SI’s ‘In Her Own Words’ project, Paulina (pictured) and the other models stripped down and turned their body into canvases covered with meaningful words
Strike a pose: The words written on their bodies represent how they see themselves, and Robyn posed with ‘creative’ and ‘nurturer’ emblazoned on her upper body
While posing provocatively while nude might not immediately seem like a move away from the publication’s traditional projects, those behind the shoot insisted that the nakedness was a form of expression, allowing the models involved to express their ‘voice, strength and passion… in the rawest form’.
The intention was to use the kinds of images that readers expect from the magazine and then use those as a platform to deliver a more meaningful and empowering message. It is in fact the first time that a fully nude spread — which was shot by a female photographer — will run in the publication, which previously focused more on raunchy shots featuring risque swimwear.
‘In Her Own Words is a continuation and evolution of the essence of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit,’ the publication explained on its website. ‘It is a platform that allows the voice, the strength and the passion of these women to be expressed in the rawest form…on the naked body…with all the artistic and creative control left to them.’
In order to make the models feel as comfortable as possible in the face of the perhaps-daunting prospect of posing nude in front of cameras and a crew of people, the magazine ‘stripped down’ its studio and used a team comprised of only women for this particular shoot.
‘We handed over the control to the women who are our brand,’ it explained online. ‘We believed in, supported and encouraged them to become a canvas and share their truth.’
For editor MJ Day, the shoot marks a big shift for the publication, and one which she feels has been worked towards for many years now.
She has made concerted efforts to embrace a much more diverse cast of Swimsuit stars, explaining to Vanity Fair that she hopes to continue diversifying the magazine beyond the rather narrow standards of beauty that it once embraced and celebrated.
‘Why are we only saying to ourselves that there’s just one type of person that’s worthy of being celebrated?’ she asked.
‘It’s bull****, and we all know it, and we all live it, yet it’s continued to be propagated in the media.’
She went on to explain to Vanity Fair that this does not mean the magazine is going to turn its back on those sexy beach-based shoots that have filled its pages for years – instead MJ hopes that she can alter the way that the images, and particularly the women in them, are viewed.
‘It’s about allowing women to exist in the world without being harassed or judged regardless of how they like to present themselves. That’s an underlying thread that exists throughout the Swimsuit Issue,’ she said.
‘You have Harvard graduates, you have billion-dollar moguls, you have philanthropists, you have teachers, you have mothers—you have a full range of women represented in the alumnus of this magazine, and not one of them failed because they wore a bikini.’