08/12/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2012

Olympic Swimmer Leisel Jones: Fat and Fearless?

If you read my earlier blog, "Olympic-Size Pressure," you already know how I feel about the way Olympic athletes are criticized. I am sad to say that the 2012 Olympics have taken this to a whole new level.

While I could pick from several top stories, the one that struck me as the most offensive was the one about Leisel Jones being too fat. This woman is at the top of her game -- obviously -- and is the first Australian swimmer to compete in four Olympic Games. Instead of praising her for such an incredible achievement, we are apparently supposed to be telling her that she's not healthy and needs to lose weight. I'm with Jeannine Stein, who said in her article: "Yes, the photos reveal that Jones does not have a perfectly flat stomach with washboard abs. But let he or she who is without a muffin top -- and who has a few gold medals -- cast the first stone." Hear, hear! Fortunately, Leisel denies feeling any pressure.

All that this fuss really highlights is that once again, society is putting more emphasis on appearance than skill. Why are we so focused on what we look like? Why are we so quick to judge others based on appearance? Social psychologists call this phenomenon downward social comparison. The principle is quite simple: If we feel bad about ourselves, one way to boost self-esteem is to make fun of other people -- indulging our inner gossip, if you will. The effects of smearing someone else's good name are almost immediate. It makes us very happy when we see other people failing or being criticized, especially when we feel threatened or afraid. Yes, it's human nature. But aren't there other ways for us to overcome our fears?

Why, yes. As a matter of fact, there are. Let's turn back to the Olympics for a moment. Olympians face a huge number of struggles and have to deal with fear every step of the way. How do they do it? Here are but a few examples:

  1. Fear of failure -- Since failure to an Olympian means not winning a gold medal, this is something that all Olympians struggle with and that most of them will face. Perhaps Australian swimmer James Magnussen put it best: "Forget about the past and move on. You've got another race." In other words, failure happens. But we can't let that cripple us or hold us back. Otherwise it becomes the self-fulfilling prophecy. Think you'll fail? Then you will. So take some advice from an Olympian: Let it go. Move on.
  2. Fear of reprisal -- If you succeed, people should be happy for you, right? Think again. Just talk to any of the female athletes from Saudi Arabia. Not only did these women face tremendous opposition in their own country for even coming to the Olympics, many of them had to train in secret. Worried that your competitors will be upset if you beat them? That's their problem, not yours. Be like an Olympian: Use that as a motivation to try harder.
  3. Fear that you don't deserve success -- Been looking around at your competition and thinking that you don't deserve to be among them? Consider Lolo Jones. Raised in poverty, homeless for much of her childhood, Lolo had to steal food to feed her family. Yes, she had it rough as a child -- very rough. Does that mean she doesn't deserve success? Of course not. Be like Lolo: Use your fear to convince yourself and others that you've worked hard and deserve success.
  4. Fear of sacrifice -- This year's Olympics presents an array of athletes who have had to make extreme sacrifices to get where they are today. Oscar Pistorius was born without fibulae and subsequently became a double amputee. While some have argued that prosthetics may give him an unfair advantage, I encourage you to talk to anyone who uses a prosthetic. The pain they endure to wear the prosthetic and the time it takes to adjust to it far surpass any competitive "advantages" they may get from wearing it.

So the next time you find yourself wanting to criticize someone else as a way to make yourself feel better, think like an Olympian and rise above the rest. Conquering your fears isn't about making yourself look better than others; it's about making you the best you can be.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that Oscar Pistorius was born without lower legs. He was born without fibulae.

For more by Mary Pritchard, click here.

For more on becoming fearless, click here.