Overcoming Criticism and Embracing Strong One Shoulder at a Time

The #EmbraceStrong campaign has totally surprised me, and I couldn't be happier to get great responses from so many great women from around the world. This month I asked my best friend Latoya James to share her story. Latoya and I have been friends since 2007. When I met Latoya there was something that doesn't happen very often with me. We clicked automatically, and since then have grown into best friends and sisters. She is a 400 meter hurdler, and one of the most talented women I know. For her to tell her story means the world, not only to me but to those girls out there that might be going through what she has. 

I remember the very first time I was made aware that my “strong” shoulders were, well, an issue. It was around the seventh grade. There I was, sitting in class working on an assignment, when one of my classmates randomly – and loudly – announced, “Latoya, your shoulders are so…broad!” Talk about awkward. Do I say “thank you” and accept it as flattery, or deem it an insult and lower my head in embarrassment? I chose the latter, because in all of my 12 years on the earth, I had never known for a woman to be complimented for her strong build. As a result, I became self-conscious and avoided clothing that emphasized my shoulders. Afraid – in my own words – to look like a man in a dress. 



Fast-forward a few years, when I was a Division-I athlete and weight lifting was fundamental to my training regimen. As we know, weight lifting is a pillar in almost every sport, especially track and field. In order to break records, win championships, and run personal bests, I needed to be strong, and that included building my upper-body strength.

But, that was exactly what I didn’t want – muscles that would make my naturally broad shoulders appear even stronger than before. So, I allowed my self-consciousness to override my desire to be an ever better athlete. I would go light on every exercise involving the arms and back, and I never pushed myself to bench more than 75 pounds. Yes, pathetic, but hindsight is always 20/20.

Not surprisingly, once I became more comfortable with my body and benched, lifted and performed push-ups without the fear of (ironically) “looking strong”, my shoulders received 10x more attention. But, in order for me to be comfortable in my skin and secure with who I am, I had to think differently. I could no longer see my shoulders as a flaw, but as a symbol of strength – physically and metaphorically. Physically, I’m stronger than I’ve ever been – I can bench up to 125 pounds and do 40 push-ups in a row, non-stop. Metaphorically speaking, these babies can hold the weight of the world without breaking a sweat. Being strong, in every sense of the word, became more important than trying to hide a body that society deemed unconventional.

Now, I don’t cower in the face of admiration disguised as criticism (see what I did there?). Instead, I stand erect, I wear strapless halters and I strut stoically – comfortable in my skin and proud of my strength.  

Here’s my word of encouragement to any female athlete struggling with body image issues: Just like you, your body is unique and a visual representation of the hard work you put in. Be proud, revel in it and show it off for the world to see.

If my words don’t do it for you, then maybe our dear friend Rhonda Rousey can put it more eloquently.