FAYETTEVILLE -- Survivors of abuse must be kind to themselves, said Aly Raisman, a two-time U.S. Olympian who spoke up in 2017 to disclose that she had been abused by a team doctor for USA Gymnastics.
Raisman, winner of six Olympic medals, said she has struggled with anxiety over how others perceive her, but received important advice from Tarana Burke, who is the originator of the MeToo phrase used to unite survivors against sexual assault.
"I think sometimes we tell ourselves that what happened to us wasn't so bad, or it could have been worse, or no one will believe us," Raisman said.
But "the most important person you tell your story to is yourself," Raisman said, repeating Burke's advice.
"Just make sure you're being kind to yourself. If you've been through something hard, just make sure you're validating yourself," Raisman said. "If a friend came forward to you, you would support them. And so just make sure you're doing the same thing to yourself."
Raisman spoke to about 150 people at the Fayetteville Town Center at an event coordinated by the University of Arkansas Distinguished Lectures Committee. Students, faculty and staff also had the option of watching Raisman's talk via an online livestream of the event.
Face coverings were required for those in attendance, with Raisman and event moderators also wearing masks. Raisman said it was her first in-person speaking event since the pandemic.
Raisman, 26, spoke about the importance of change in society and accountability for those in charge.
She was one of more than 150 -- along with current Razorbacks women's gymanstics Coach Jordyn Wieber -- who gave victim impact statements at the sentencing hearing of gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexually assaulting athletes.
"Our society blames women, or men, who are abused and makes people feel like it's their fault. And that's something I'm really passionate about changing, because it's not right," Raisman said.
Raisman won six medals, including three gold medals, at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games.
She said that before she disclosed her own abuse publicly, she spoke out about USA Gymnastics, which also wasn't easy.
"I was very uncomfortable about speaking out against USA Gymnastics, because I had been in such a people-pleasing mindset my whole life," Raisman said. "And I didn't really have a voice in the organization. And so, I just, I was really, really scared."
But she said she was watching the organization "sweep it under the rug," leading her to speak out.
"We're still, you know, not in a good spot with USA Gymnastics, or the United States Olympic Committee, and it's been so many years," Raisman said. "So, something I think about a lot is, our stories have been so public, and it's been a very high profile case, and we still don't have any accountability. And I think that really speaks to our society."
Raisman spoke about the importance of having a positive inner dialogue. The perceptions of others can be be damaging, she said, telling a story from her childhood.
"When I was in the fifth grade, I was bullied because the boys in my class didn't like my muscles, and that stuck with me for so long," Raisman said, describing how it has affected her choice of clothing over the years.
She said she's "forever grateful" for the support she's received after telling her story.
After what she called a separation from the sport of gymnastics, Raisman said she's starting to "feel that childlike excitement again.
"And I find myself, like, watching more gymnastics routines again, and it feels really nice, because for a while I just wanted some space."