Photo Credit: Submitted
By Lilah Drafts-Johnson - MileSplit Correspondent
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As a 15-time All-American, three-time NCAA champion and two-time U.S. champion in the 5,000m, Lauren Fleshman has, over her lifespan, undeniably raised the bar for women's athletics.
In her new book "Good for a Girl: A Woman Running in a Man's World," she goes a step further, raising the bar for coaches, sports medicine practitioners and athletic brands alike, advocating for those spaces to create and maintain safer environments for girls and women in the sport.
Fleshman, 42, a former California state cross country and 3,200m champion for Canyon High School and a Stanford University graduate, has always had a way with words.
She first wrote for MileSplit in 2017, publishing a "Dear Younger Me" letter which touched on the pressures many female athletes feel, such as conforming their bodies to others and facing unrealistic standards. The piece generated an important conversation around eating disorders and female athlete health.
In her book, Fleshman's storytelling further brings emerging data and science around female athlete health to life as she recounts her journey through high school, collegiate and professional running.
Fleshman discussed her book and its lessons for MileSplit readers via phone interview. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MileSplit: What was it like to reflect on your running career, particularly your early days of high school running?
Fleshman: I fell in love with running all over again while I was trying to write some of the stories, just trying to remember what it was like and why I ended up doing this sport so passionately. But it was difficult to write about high school and college, because I was writing about the tension of having this pure joy for something on one side, and then the forces at play on the other side that were trying to fit that joy into a mold of achievement or perfection. I just felt like I was in the middle of a wrestling match. But it also reminded me of what I was fighting for: more joy, more time and more space for young people to love running, and trying to combat some of those forces that take that love away from us.
MileSplit: A big part of your book is naming those nebulous "forces at play" for female athletes. What are they, and why do you say in your book that coaches need to learn to speak plainly about them?
Fleshman: Well, there's the invisibility of female puberty. We see it everywhere, but we can't really talk about it and we don't really have affirming language for it in sport. We have to proactively guide young people to be able feel optimistic about the changes that are happening, and to feel positively about a menstrual cycle that, admittedly, is really annoying. But we need to protect getting regularly. There is so much stigma around anything that has to do with the processes happening around menstruation, periods, blood, all that stuff. Over half the population is experiencing these things. But we are, as a culture, trained to think of it as dirty and like we need all these nicknames for body parts as if they're shameful or something. What I'm naming in the book is really any force that takes a changing female-bodied person and makes them feel afraid, sexualized, or disempowered.
MileSplit: Right, you have this line in the book about puberty: "Movement for girls now feels different than it does for their male peers they used to run alongside, but the sexualization of girls' bodies creates barriers to adult figures talking about it." There is a lot of fear around saying the wrong thing, especially for men, so how do you recommend coaches handle these conversations?
"But it was difficult to write about high school and college, because I was writing about the tension of having this pure joy for something on one side, and then the forces at play on the other side that were trying to fit that joy into a mold of achievement or perfection. I just felt like I was in the middle of a wrestling match."
Fleshman: I don't blame them for being afraid, and it's better for them to walk carefully than the way things used to be in the past. They should walk with respect and be deliberate with their language. But you need to be able to acknowledge that during puberty, breasts develop, the menstrual cycle happens and those things are going to change how movement feels. You don't need to talk about it for hours, but acknowledging its existence is helpful. Otherwise, the athlete only hears the negative messages around those things.
MileSplit: You have been advocating for a change in how athletic brands portrayed female athletes ever since you negotiated your first professional contract with Nike almost twenty years ago. While brands and sports media still have a long way to go, there have been a lot of positive changes. What has it been like watching that change from the front lines?
Fleshman: It's been really rewarding, but also useful, because it's taught me about the time it takes to see change happen. It's worth it to stay optimistic, to keep pushing, to find other people who also want to push. Finding Oiselle [Note: Fleshman's current sponsor] and partnering with like-minded people happened almost 10 years after I sat in the CEO's office at Nike. But because I continued to care and continued to push, I was able to eventually find larger and larger groups of people, and then we got more done. It's so important to stick with it, but I was really frustrated at the time, and I know a lot of young, idealistic people who feel that way, too. They become aware of the injustices of the world, and they want to fight to change things, but they get frustrated at the pushback and how long it takes. But we need to remember that we're pushing back against a lot of money and power and people who benefit from things remaining as they are.
MileSplit: While you were competing as a runner, you were also a writer, an entrepreneur, and an advocate. How did having these different identities outside of sport impact your running career?
Fleshman: I definitely think that it's always been a positive for me, when I've leaned into my other identities. During the times in my career where I tried to listen to the people who said, 'be less, be narrower,' I did worse. Or, if I was doing well, I wasn't enjoying it. I was sort of collapsing on the inside. I think that there some people who are just wired differently than me and having more of a singular focus on sport comes naturally to them. And there are people like that in all fields, from music, to science, to sport, right? It's fine if somebody wants to put all their attention on sport, but that just wasn't me, and I'm glad I'm not that way because sport is fickle and you can only perform your best when your physical body is at 100-percent. And that's a huge ask! If you put all your identity into performance, you're reliant on your physical body to be amazing and excellent and impervious to injury and illness. So, I think I was aware of that, and it was helpful to have other parts of my life that I could lean into when running wasn't going perfectly.
"It's been really rewarding, but also useful, because it's taught me about the time it takes to see change happen. It's worth it to stay optimistic, to keep pushing, to find other people who also want to push."
MileSplit: What changes do you think the collegiate system could make to better support female athletes?
Fleshman: I think there should be education around menstrual health and performance and education around eating disorder risk and how to talk about bodies and bodily changes. I think that there should be a database where colleges have to report their injury rates of specific types of injuries, their attrition rates, as well as the results of surveys where athletes were asked when they showed up to campus as a freshman about questions about their love of sport, like how much joy it brings them or all these things, and then asked those same questions when they leave. I think we should have official policies for eating disorders that are evidence-based, since we know that athletes are most likely to make a full recovery if intervention happens sooner rather than later. Those are some of the things.
MileSplit: Is there anything I didn't ask you that you wanted to speak on?
Fleshman: If there is one thing that high school athletes and coaches could start doing tomorrow that would really help the health of their team, it would be to change how bodies are talked about in that space. A question I get is, how do we change the culture of eating disorders and negative self-talk? One of the things that you can do is have a conversation as a team about it: We know this kind of language hurts us, so we're going to make a pact to stop doing that, to stop talking about our weight, to stop making negative comments about our bodies. What should you do if you hear a teammate say something bad about themselves? One of the things you could say is, it hurts me when you talk about one of my favorite people that way. That's a good way to just nip it in the bud and make somebody think.