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A tastefully nude Jessie Diggins draws strength from ESPN's Body Issue despite criticism

The smile remains weeks after Afton, Minn., native Jessie Diggins won the first American women's gold medal in Olympic cross-country skiing. She shows off her medal Thursday, April 12, 2018, hours after returning to Minnesota for the first time since the Olympics. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Afton, Minn., native Jessie Diggins doesn't care about the haters. Not anymore.

That's something the 2018 Winter Olympic gold medalist wants to make abundantly clear after posing in the ESPN Body Issue for a tastefully nude spread of photographs published this week.

"There's always going to be haters that tell us what we can and can't do with our bodies, and it's not up to them," the 26-year-old Nordic ski star said in a telephone interview with the Pioneer Press. "Everyone has their own reason for being part of it. I decided to do it because, for me, it was a full-circle moment of being proud of my body. It was the celebration of that more than anything else."

That wasn't was always the case for Diggins, something she opened up about in a very personal blog post published on the day the ESPN Body Issue came out. She wrote about her struggles growing up with body image issues, revealing she suffered from an eating disorder after graduating from Stillwater High School, eventually seeking help at The Emily Program on her road to recovery.

Because of that, Diggins admitted there was a flood of emotions when initially approached about posing for ESPN. She wasn't sure how to feel about it, and perhaps more pressing, wasn't sure how she would feel about it if she decided to do it.

"I was extremely apprehensive at first," she said. "This is something I never thought I'd do and I guess part of me was nervous that doing it would bring some of those insecurities back up."

Ultimately, Diggins decided posing was a chance to inspire others who might be struggling with similar body image issues.

"I feel like everyone in the world has at some point felt insecure about how they look," she said. "It's a universal thing, so it's important not to feel this negative stigma about it. I feel like we need to start celebrating what our bodies can do rather than feeling a certain way about how our bodies look."

Researching the ESPN Body Issue before making her decision, Diggins also noticed a distinguishable trend with how male athletes who have posed are viewed compared to female athletes. More often than not, she surmised, a male athlete was lauded for his participation, while a female athlete was criticized.

"It's such a crazy double standard that suddenly we aren't a role model when we want to be proud of our bodies," she said. "That was another thing that made me be, like, 'Yeah. I really want to do this.' We aren't going to solve body image issues by not talking about it, so I'm hoping this actually opens up the conversation."

Diggins was anxious going into the photo shoot, though working with an all-female support staff helped her feel more comfortable.

"I had one request," she said. "I didn't want the photos to be sexy; I wanted the photos to be bad ass. They had to be powerful and show the joy of the sport.

"It ended up being incredibly empowering. I felt strong and confident, and I was able to embrace my muscles. I'm really glad I did it."

Diggins said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. She also has had many people reach out on social media regarding her blog post that coincided with the ESPN Body Issue.

"I went into this thinking maybe I'd help one person," Diggins said. "Just to see the amount of people reaching out has been awesome. That's exactly the reason I decided to something like this."

To be expected, there has been some negative reaction on social media, too, something Diggins dismisses at this point.

"I feel like this experience has made me even stronger being able to say, 'I don't care what those type of people think about me,'" she said. "There are always going to be people that find something to hate on. All the people that I'm closest with have supported me throughout this process. That's the only thing that matters to me. I don't need to worry what some random 40-year-old man sitting in his basement is posting on my Instagram. It really doesn't matter."

After some offseason time at home, Diggins is back in Stratton, Vt., training for next season. It's a welcomed change after six months of chaos following the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"I feel like that Olympic fever is finally starting to die down," Diggins said with a sigh of relief. "It's been a good kind of exhausting. That said, I'm glad everything is kind of getting back to normal."