With Her New Book, Runner Lauren Fleshman Shares How Sports Systems Continue To Fail Women
Well+Good: What made the timing right to write a book on this particular topic now?
Lauren Fleshman: I think that the book had to be written—I just felt like there was discontent inside me. Over many years of watching a problem unfold and searching for the causes of the problem that was causing this sort of widespread attack on the female body and female-bodied experiences, it was just was eating away at me. As I got to the end of my racing career and then well into my coaching career, I felt satisfied with the changes I was making in a small group when I had control over my own team. But I also felt like it wasn't enough, that the problem would still continue indefinitely.
When Mary Cain's New York Times interview and op-doc was published, that was really powerful for me. But it was really just the latest in a long line of stories. While her story clearly outraged a lot of people, it didn't actually change anything fundamentally about women's sports. I guess I just had lost the naïveté that any one story could make it better. So the book is just my best attempt to try to help with the problem.
W+G: Where did the title come from?
LF: I think it just had a good double meaning for me where it was something people said to me a lot growing up, that, "You're pretty good for a girl,” and that idea that you can never actually be the best, period, as a female athlete. I had to come to grips with what that meant with my own sense of gender identity, because I never really felt like a girl growing up. So there was that limiting nature of that saying, but then how can we think about the bigger picture of sports to make it truly good for girls.
W+G: Would you say you feel sports empower women and girls, or that they’re more continuing to fail them?
LF: While there have been huge improvements in access, we’re still not Title IX-compliant by any means, and the majority of schools that aren't are those that primarily serve communities of color. One of the things that people like to say that is super empowering is how things are basically so much more equal now. I always like to point out that, yes, there have been huge gains, but we are not done with that most simple basic task of access.
I think the biggest potential positive in a culture that values the female body primarily around appearance is that sports give female-bodied people a place to experience their bodies in a way that doesn't have anything to do with their appearance, or the male gaze. There is, in theory, this huge arena to feel what your body can do to become powerful in it in a way that is different from sexualization.
W+G Have you seen any strides being made that give you hope?
LF: There’s a lot of discussion around the menstrual cycle and the importance of tracking it and acknowledging its impact. But we’re also in a post-Roe America right now where it's actually unsafe for menstruating people to use digital apps, the most advanced technology, to have free communication between medical professionals and coaches. Because we live in this Handmaid's Tale situation, we can't even take advantage of the gains in research, out of fear of having it used against us. Those things make me not hopeful.
We also need to stop comparing ourselves to the male standard, to stop viewing equality as “we get what the men have the way they have it.” That doesn’t happen just in sports, but in all industries.
We're at a really exciting time in history, but I don't feel like we've made big gains yet. If you look at what happened with the #MeToo movement, when you do get enough women in a space and they do make the decision collectively that orienting this around male comfort or male norms is no longer acceptable, then you can create significant change.
W+G: In the book you write about how 87 percent of female athletes don't talk to their coaches about their periods. And how young athletes are surprised to learn that they need to allow a performance plateau to happen as their bodies develop. Do you think further steps need to be taken to ensure that anyone working with young female athletes isn't imparting harmful advice?
LF: Absolutely. There should be mandatory training for any adult that is going to be coaching female athletes. It seems absurd to me that you would not have the requirement to have an understanding of female puberty and basic physiology. When you don't do that, the assumption is that whatever knowledge you have about the male body is directly applicable, and it's not.
W+G: Do you think more female coaches would help to dismantle prevalent destructive patterns like eating disorders?
LF: I don't think that adding more female coaches is enough of a solution. “Also menstruates” is not enough of a qualification. It doesn't guarantee that you won't repeat the same harmful patterns from the system around you that you've grown up in. I'd certainly want there to be gender equity in the coaching profession, but not in exchange for education.
W+G: What do you think are some of the challenges that female coaches face compared to male coaches?
LF: Just like in any field, when you’re in the super minority, people don't look at you and see “coach.” I wrote about this briefly in the book, but when Little Wing (the Oiselle team I coach) was launched, the assumption was that my husband (former professional triathlete Jesse Thomas) was the coach. Bias is definitely still a problem.
Coaching is also a career that’s pretty incompatible with parenthood, and I think the job itself needs to change to be more parent-friendly for all genders. Keeping women in coaching will be dependent on a much larger societal problem we have of unequal labor in the home and unequal responsibility for caregiving, not just for children, but also for aging parents. And since we still live in a society where there's gross inequity in those things, a job like coaching that is so incredibly demanding and so far outside the normal 9-to-5 is going to be one of the harder careers to manage alongside all those other gender-influenced responsibilities.
W+G: My introduction to your running story was when you ran the New York City Marathon in 2011. Back then, you painted it as an experiment to see if it would help you get faster in the 5K, but in the book, you reveal that you did it because Nike (your then-sponsor) had cut your pay, so it was an opportunity to potentially recoup some of those earnings.
LF: There’s a lot of fear around sharing what is in your contracts because there are confidentiality clauses and various things put in there to keep athletes quiet. But then there's also a lot of shame around money. The idea of just stating that you're running for money is kind of viewed as “in bad taste,” or “unpure,” or whatever. I think there was shame, too, in getting my contract reduced. It’s feeling so narrowly valued as a person and having that value be so fragile.
I think I have more confidence talking about that now because I know how much that silence hurts athletes. I've also taken confidence from the US Women's Soccer team and how people like Megan Rapinoe have spoken openly and honestly about money and the importance of that driver in the future of women's sports in general. It's important that people understand financial scarcity as one of the forces at play.
In fact, one of the alternate titles I had for my book was “Forces at Play.” I think that while the money stories are uncomfortable to tell, it is a huge driver throughout the book, and it's a huge driver of the eating disorder problem in younger female athletes because of all the financial rewards and incentives. Free college and professional contracts are given to those who can essentially have their bodies most closely mimic a male-bodied experience to stay on their timeline. That is a huge incentive that we're working against.
W+G: You recently came out as bisexual in an Instagram post, and you've described it as the most invisible part of your identity. What made the timing right to talk about it now?
LF: All of the hate that I was seeing, the temperature rising against trans people in sport, and seeing, especially in liberal communities that I generally identify with, being extremely transphobic and harmful to this one community. When you're hiding a part of yourself, it's harder to verbally advocate for that part of your identity and your community. You probably shouldn’t need to come out in order to be more vocal, though. I think that that's just part of the damage of being the closet in general.
W+G: In the book, you talk about how upset you'd been to learn that you were paid less than male athletes. But you eventually learned that other people had it worse than white women, and that pro sports teach you to exploit any advantage you have and they silence any protests with reminders of your disposability. You note that you now understand that the more marginalized you are, the more obstacles you're likely to face and the less grace you're likely to be given by those in power when you do speak out. How did this realization happen for you?
LF: White feminism is a really powerful group, and there has been this idea of “trickle-down feminism,” that if you can achieve certain wins for white people, white women, or the group that's most "digestible" for the ones holding the majority of the power (i.e. white men), then once you get in the room, you can change things for other people. I've definitely learned that that is not a winning strategy and that it doesn't trickle down and it just causes more harm.
Through the book I trace the things I learned when I learned them because I wanted to keep that record for other people who may be somewhere along their journey of realizing these things, these forces at play. I think because white feminism is such a strong force in the feminist movement, and I don't know if it will be helpful at all, but I just wanted to lay out those breadcrumbs through the book.
Embracing my queer identity to myself before I came out was also a thing that helped me understand other groups' identities or just understand that there's a lot I don't know about. But yeah, I also had shame around the advocacy work that I didn't do looking back, but you only know what you know when you know it.
W+G: In the book you also talk about how after you initially signed with Oiselle, your former college coach, Dena Evans, gave some constructive criticism about Oiselle's website and how homogenous the imaging looked. What was your reaction to that feedback?
LF: It was really hard to hear at first and easy to feel naturally defensive. I just remember sitting with it and then looking through the website on my own and seeing what she was seeing and then feeling really embarrassed that I hadn't noticed and that somebody I cared about so much could go to this website that makes me feel so empowered and have a completely opposite feeling. It kind of burst the balloon of, “The running world is f****d up, but I found the place where it's not.” But it showed me that work is not even close to being done and provided a clear starting point for where to engage.
Since then, I’ve been involved with the team at Oiselle in making true change from the inside out. I've been impressed and it's made me proud to work for that company as they've gone through that.
W+G: You’ve been with Oiselle for 10 years now. How has your work with the brand evolved? How have they supported your personal endeavors?
LF: I used to race professionally for them and try to get the brand out there in the public from having it on my body on the biggest stages possible. And then also through a coaching capacity, being a leader of a different kind of team and doing that with their name on our chest and their support behind us.
Now, I'm more involved in strategic conversations. My involvement is a lot less than it used to be, but I'm still very passionate about it. Their support of me also hasn't wavered, even though I've pulled back from a lot of my old responsibilities because they believe in what I’m trying to do with this book.
W+G: What goals do you have for your future?
LF: I want to remain open to anything that could happen—maybe there'll be an initiative to create a coaching certification program or a significant push to change legislation, the way concussion legislation completely changed the sports where concussions happen. I believe there could be policy changes that create the scaffolding for a much healthier experience for female-bodied athletes in sport that create the protections where individual coaches can't. I think there’s currently too much riding on the goodwill and open minds of coaches who already have so much on their plates. But I'm definitely interested in those larger-scale shifts that can make things better. I don't have the ability to do those things alone, and I am not interested in driving them by myself. So we'll just have to see what happens.
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