It Figures is Vivaraenews Life’s body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Allyson Felix is praised for her superhuman athleticism as the most decorated U.S. track-and-field athlete of all time. But after experiencing complications during the pregnancy and birth of her daughter Camryn back in 2018, the 36-year-old is opening up about how she realized that she had neglected her health, despite being in great shape.
“I felt good throughout my pregnancy and I was exercising and felt strong. But then I did experience complications and I had a severe case of preeclampsia,” Felix tells Vivaraenews Life. “That’s really what opened my eyes to the fact that you might feel good and you might be a certain age and nothing feels out of the ordinary, but it doesn’t mean that you have perfect health.”
Felix’s prior understanding of health relied heavily on what many people believe good health looks like — namely, being physically fit — but her own experience during pregnancy challenged that. However, it wouldn’t be the first time that Felix had to face expectations about her own body.
“In high school, I had been teased about my really skinny legs and had the nickname chicken legs and went through all of that,” she explains. “I think it was always expected that my body would look a certain way and I don’t feel like I fit into that mold. I was more slender and I didn’t have the same muscle build as a lot of the other athletes. And so I went through a period of feeling like I didn’t really fit in with what traditionally it should look like.”
As Felix got older, she began to change her perspective while discovering that her body was actually the source of her power.
“I became a young woman and realized that I have this gift of running,” says Felix. “I started to embrace these slender legs and what they could do, and I think it shifted once I started to see that there is beauty in the diversity of our bodies. Everybody has a strength, and there’s something that’s beautiful about all of our differences. And I think that’s when I really started to understand that and to embrace how I looked.”
Felix has proven her strength and speed, as she’s acquired countless accolades including 10 Olympic medals. Even as she faced injuries and hardships in her training, Felix says that she always felt that she was healthy. During her pregnancy, however, she discovered that the markers she had been using to determine her health weren’t painting an accurate picture.
Felix was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia — a dangerous pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure — at 32-weeks pregnant and had an emergency C-section to deliver her daughter two months early. She says that she was aware of the statistics of maternal morality among Black mothers, but hadn’t considered that she’d be in danger.
“I still didn’t see myself ever being in that place. Being healthy, or what I perceived to be healthy, and being active, I just never thought I would find myself there,” Felix says. In retrospect, “I think I actually took my health for granted.”
After focusing on her recover, and spending a month watching over her daughter in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) before bringing her home, Felix faced further frustration as she worked to get back into her sport.
“I remember just feeling like I’m never gonna get back to the athlete that I was. I had been through so much and I just felt emotionally drained and physically just so far from my peak performance. And my coach gave me a 30 minute walk, and I remember getting on the treadmill and doing this power walk and being in tears by the time I came to the end of it, because I just felt so unlike myself,” Felix says, as she recalls the “scary” process. “I felt like this was a body that I just wasn’t used to. And so it was really challenging to continue to move forward because it did feel like something that was just so foreign to me.”
But much like the other challenges that she had faced both on and off the track, Felix explains that she ultimately lifted herself out of that headspace by redefining her relationship with her body and her sport.
“I feel stronger because I feel like I have a greater purpose,” Felix explains of the place that she finds herself in today. “I used to obviously be extremely competitive and my motivation really was winning and really performance driven. And I think now it’s really shifted as a mother thinking about my daughter in the world that she’ll grow up in and what I wanna teach her about work ethic and overcoming adversity and telling her all of these stories.”
Just as the stories of other women and mothers got Felix through the most difficult time of her life, the athlete has come to understand just how impactful her journey is for other people — especially as she won gold at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“This was the first time that, to me, it was really bigger than the race,” says Felix. “I was being a representation for women and for mothers and for people who had been told that their stories were over. I did feel like I pulled strength from other women.”
But beyond what women can learn from Felix’s perseverance on the track, the mom hopes that she can be a voice for women struggling with their healthcare. Most importantly, Felix wants her daughter to grow up in an environment where she knows that health doesn’t look any one way.
“I think about showing my daughter lots of different women, lots of different shapes in the diversity of the people that I bring around her,” Felix says. “I want her to know that strong and beautiful look so many different ways. I want her to see what real women look like and healthy women and really appreciate that. I hope that her standard of beauty encompasses all of that. I think that’s really my job as a mother.”
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