Olympian Allyson Felix on How Motherhood Pushed Her to Embrace Her Authentic Self
"I feel like now there's a concrete reason why I need to speak up."
Welcome to On Beauty, a series where we take a deep-dive look into one person's relationship to beauty, how that relationship has transformed over the years, and how they experience being seen. This week we're talking to Allyson Felix, the six-time Olympic gold medalist and the most decorated American woman in track-and-field history. Allyson is currently starring in a campaign for Pantene that highlights not only her success as an athlete, but also the legacy she leaves behind for her daughter, Cammy. Below, she opens up about how motherhood has changed her, how she felt like an outsider at the beginning of her career, and how her definition of beauty has changed.
"I think beauty is all about being comfortable in my own skin. I find beauty in so many different people and things—it's about that confidence that comes through when you own what makes you unique. I've had a lot of great role models and people in my life to help me build up that confidence, but I've definitely gone through different stages—whether it was one thing or another—where I didn't embrace who I was.
"Hair was a big thing growing up—being different has always been something that was so hard to deal with. There's just such a long history of it not being acceptable to wear our hair in certain styles. I think things have changed, but we still have a long way to go. I've always been natural—my mom was really adamant about that growing up. And I think she helped me feel confident when it came to my natural hair. But I think it was more learning what products work well with it and what styles best fit me that bump that confidence up more."Now I'm more comfortable with my hair. I'll wear it in my natural curls or in braids, and sometimes I'll get it straightened. It really just depends on my mood or whatever makes me happy at the moment. I grew up seeing so many different definitions of beauty—my aunts each had their own style. Some of them wore no makeup at all, others wore a full face. Honestly, it was great seeing that range of beauty and all the different ways you can express yourself."
Photo: Courtesy of Pantene
"It got harder once I started running professionally. I feel like there was a standard of beauty that was able to cross over and become mainstream. And I feel like a lot of times that standard of beauty is not what a woman of color looks like. It was hard, especially in my younger years, to make sense of it—to not conform to that. I think understanding that I'm authentically enough, and having people in my life who reinforced that and reassured me, helped. I had to get OK with the fact that maybe I'm not going to get all of the opportunities because people can't see my unique beauty. But I see that and that's enough. I think that's a hard thing to do. It comes with time to be really able to embrace that.
"Becoming a mother definitely changed things. I feel like now there's a concrete reason why I need to speak up. I don't want my daughter to face the same issues further down the line. Motherhood gave me the courage to be able to speak on the things that need to change. It's also shown me my strength. I knew I had physical strength, but being a mom revealed so much to me. Whether it was facing complications during childbirth or my daughter having to spend time in the NICU, I've come to realize that I can overcome so much.
"Earlier in my career, I'd go to a photo shoot and look at the mood board, and I'd see images on there that I didn't identify with. Or I'd show up and they'd want me to wear my hair straight. I'd get the feeling that I didn't belong or that I'm not what they're looking for. Gaining that confidence to say, 'No, this is how I want to wear my hair' and remaining authentic to myself has helped me control more of my image. Now I'm able to make sure that it's a true reflection of who I am.
"When I was younger, I wasn't really even in the position to be able to do that. That's part of the reason why I feel so proud of Naomi Osaka [deciding to withdraw from the French Open]. It's such a difficult thing to do, to stand up for yourself like that. I think she's started an important conversation about mental health and sports—she's really brought it to the forefront."
"On the other hand, running has shown me time and time again that there's so much variety when it comes to beauty. Strong is beautiful and strong doesn't look one way. Through running, I've seen different women and different body shapes and all these different forms of beauty. I think being exposed to that has really opened my mind and given me a different view. When I was younger, my definition of what beauty is didn't really emphasize health at all—it was more appearance-centered. Somewhere along the line, it shifted from being so focused on what I look like to wanting to feel my best.
"I hope that my daughter can be confident in embracing the things that make her unique. Whether that's loving her curls or the complexion of her skin, I hope she's able to see things in a positive light. I want her to know that she doesn't have to look like everybody else to be beautiful."
Top photo: Courtesy of Pantene
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