It Figures is Yahoo 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.
Alex Morgan has dedicated her body to the sport of soccer ever since taking it up as a young girl and ultimately becoming a household name throughout her professional career. But for the 32-year-old, her purpose as a female athlete to stand up for gender equality in sports is more apparent than ever.
"As I've become a mom and have fought for gender equality for now over six years publicly against our employer, U.S. Soccer, it's kind of given me new perspective of just the amazingness that each female has in her hands and the ability to create change," Morgan tells Yahoo Life prior to the news that U.S. Soccer agreed to guarantee equal pay. "I'm just really proud to be able to stand on this platform and be able to do things for myself, my daughter, for women for the next generation."
On the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which gave women the opportunity to participate in sport, Morgan is celebrating her own journey as a female athlete. Still, she recognizes the ways in which gender inequality continues to exist.
"Being a female is so different than being a male. And in the athlete space, males have really driven the standard historically because male sports have always been accepted. Men have always been accepted in sport and females have not always been accepted. In a lot of parts of the world, females are still not accepted in sport," she explains. "So, if you really look at what we're trying to change in sports it's about not seeing the male standards as the standard across all females and males. And that includes definitely body image, nutrition, the needs on and off the field, or in an in and out of the gym. Really the acceptance of the wide range of everyone's individual body."
While there are obvious disparities between the treatment of men and women in her sport — most notably the fact that Morgan has long made "20 times less than the male athlete equivalent to my status or my abilities on the soccer field" — she also points to the difference in how male and female athletes need to take care of their bodies. She recalls a lot of trial and error while she figured out how best to fuel herself to perform.
"I kind of learned a little more as I got into being a professional athlete exactly what it takes to nurture my body nutritionally. Before I really didn't put an emphasis on that. I also gradually became vegetarian vegan and felt like that was a really important part of my body recovering faster, being able to operate at it's optimal rate," she says. "When I was younger, I did a lot of things where I pushed my body through things that I really shouldn't have because of the outside pressures that I had from coaches or peers or the environment that I was in as a team environment, and really not having that self confidence to pull myself out of thinking that what others thought of me was more important than what I thought of myself."
In terms of general body acceptance, Morgan notices both pros and cons to having a variety of body types represented in women's soccer in particular.
"I'm really lucky that there's all sorts of teammates that have different bodies than I do, and that's totally OK. Soccer doesn't put a certain body type into a box. There's taller, shorter, you know, it doesn't matter," she says. "But it's also really challenging because you find yourself comparing, when you can't really compare."
Outside of her sport, she even had difficulty feeling like she didn't fit the stereotype of an athlete, nor did she feel aligned with general beauty standards. "Something that might be accepted in soccer as the body of an athlete, not being really skinny but being lean, is then not accepted outside of the sports world. And so growing up, I think that there was definitely difficulty with that acceptance."
She credits her support system for helping her champion those negative beliefs with constant reminders of the purpose she serves as a female athlete.
"If I didn't have my husband, who I've now been with for 15 years, and friends and family that are in my trust circle, I think it would have been a lot more difficult than it was for me," she says. "I was able to lean on them and tap into that self-acceptance that I might not otherwise have had if not for them telling me over and over that you as a human shouldn't be defined by your looks, the way you play on the field but instead by what you stand up for and what you believe in and who you surround yourself with."
Most importantly, Morgan had to learn how to have trust in herself when it comes to her relationship with her body.
"No one knows your body like you do. And I think it took a lot of learning experiences to understand really what that meant," she explains. "I feel like a lot of times, I'm still learning that and I'm still being put through situations where I am being tested and challenged in standing up for my body."
Some of those challenges have come by way of Morgan's appearances on the 2019 issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit and a 2021 SKIMS campaign, where her body has been put on display in a different way than on the field.
"I'm actually not trying to make a statement, I'm actually just trying to do what I love to do and that's play soccer. And then being given these opportunities because of my soccer playing abilities to be able to be on a Sports Illustrated cover, to be able to team up with other athletes for a major sponsor at the Olympics like SKIMS, to be able to join with some of the best athletes in other sports for a Super Bowl commercial for Michelob Ultra. They're just incredible opportunities where I don't take it too seriously," she says. "I don't think, 'Oh, what will people think of me from doing this?' I think, 'Is this fun? Is this what I see myself feeling comfortable doing in terms of my brand and who I am? Is it authentic to myself and the people or the brand that I'm surrounded by?'"
Now, her compass for how she treats her body, determines her worth as a woman and fights for equality as a female athlete is her two-year-old daughter Charlie. Through pregnancy, birth and raising her little girl, Morgan has obtained a new perspective on how she cares for herself.
"I learned to listen to my body more than I ever have before and to accept my body, regardless of the number on the scale or the way that I look at myself in the mirror. It was kind of just a transformative experience growing a human and knowing that I wasn't the priority here, it was my daughter. And I think putting that focus on someone else other than myself kind of took the perspective I needed into account in really trusting the process," she explained. "And just being now a mom, an athlete and competing back at the highest level, I feel like my perspective has forever changed in the way I look at my body. I don't look at it as something to abuse on the soccer fields, running it to the ground and seeing every last step I could get out of it. It's really like appreciating just how incredible my body is and the things that I'm able to accomplish with my body. I'm giving it more appreciation than I've ever given it before."
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