Olympic Gymnast Suni Lee Shares Her Eczema and Mental Health Journey


There’s a simple reason gymnasts wear leotards to compete: they’re formfitting, stretchy, and won’t get in the way during a front layout. But while they may be functional, they also happen to put quite a bit of skin on display – something Olympian Suni Lee struggled with when she first started dealing with eczema.

“It was something that I felt ashamed of, being in a leotard and competing for Team USA,” she tells PS. “Our skin is very exposed, cameras are always on us, people are always taking pictures, and it’s hard when you’re kind of ashamed to be looking at your own body or your skin because you can see that it’s rough or flaky.”

Lee started experiencing itchy, red skin that was “always uncomfortable” when she was younger, and it wasn’t until she’d tried “everything” she could get over the counter before she was officially diagnosed with eczema.

The inflammatory skin disease is characterized by dry, itchy skin. At its core, it’s a chronic (but manageable) condition that’s caused by an overactive immune system disrupting the skin barrier. Still, certain triggers – like specific foods, alcohol, and environmental irritants – can cause it to flare. According to the National Eczema Association, it affects over 31 million people in the US alone. Still, it can show up differently on everyone – making it hard to treat and even more difficult to talk about.

“I used to have it really bad on my arms, legs, and behind my neck – it was swollen and inflamed,” Lee says. “It made me not want to be seen anywhere because I knew people were looking at it because it was so inflamed. It has definitely taken a hit to my security levels when I’m competing, because it feels like people are looking at me.”

The gymnast has since gotten her eczema under control, which has been immensely helpful for her overall well-being. “My doctors, dermatologists, and I have a really good system – we know what works,” she says. Lee recently partnered with Eli Lilly and Company, a pharmaceutical company that makes eczema drugs and Team USA’s health equity sponsor, to destigmatize the conversation around atopic dermatitis, aka eczema. “I’ve had my fair share of insecurities with eczema, but it’s not something to be ashamed or embarrassed about. And now, I want to share my story to help inspire younger generations to be comfortable in their own skin.”

Research published by The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology has shown that those who have eczema are at a higher risk for depression and anxiety, and according to a recent survey conducted by the National Eczema Association, 30 percent of people with atopic dermatitis deal with one or both of these mental health concerns. But ironically, mental and emotional stress is one of the top triggers for eczema flare-ups, which Lee has experienced firsthand. “I get the worst stress eczema flare-ups,” she says. “At the 2021 Olympics, I was having a flare-up on my neck that I thankfully got handled right before the competition. But it happens a lot when I’m stressed and I can’t sleep. I get really bad flare-ups. So then I’m constantly itching and uncomfortable.”

Image Source: LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

“I was scared to talk about [mental health] for a long time, but when Simone and other athletes started talking about it, it made me feel more comfortable.”

It’s one of the many reasons Lee prioritizes her mental health. In addition to therapy, two practices that help manage her stress are journaling and visualization. “I’m a very private person and I keep a lot of things, so I don’t really share how I totally feel all the time, so I write it all down,” she says. “I write down my ‘whys,’ my goals, my keywords, and I visualize a lot during my routines because it’s important to remember them when you’re out there and nervous and trying to block everything out.”

While navigating her own mental health journey, Lee has been grateful to see fellow athletes open up about theirs ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics, where she’s competing for Team USA next month. “The attitude now is just so much more positive, and it’s more focused on the mental health of the athletes because if we’re not in the right headspace, you can’t expect us to compete the best routines in the way that we’re expected to,” she says. “Our needs are very important because they’re things that are going to help us when we’re out there competing.”

In the last few years, athletes like Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Naomi Osaka have spoken out about their own mental health experiences, which has helped Lee feel comfortable sharing her story. “I talk to and listen to a bunch of other athletes, and I’m constantly trying to hear and understand how some people do the things they do,” she says. “And it’s been so helpful because I was scared to talk about it for a long time, but when Simone and other athletes started talking about it, it made me feel more comfortable.”

Zoë Weiner is a freelance beauty and wellness writer. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Byrdie, Cosmopolitan, PS, GQ, Glamour, Marie Claire, Allure, Self, Brides, and Teen Vogue, among others, and she was the senior beauty editor at Well+Good.

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