First-year distance runner Lauren Fleshman still remembers the first time she lost a race to a boy. She went to high school and earned a reputation as the fastest overall runner, the one who consistently wins the mile. Until one day she was the fastest.
“The first time one of my male peers beat me up … it was because he hit puberty and kind of skyrocketed in a very short period of time,” she says. “It was very disorienting to learn that puberty would create two different paths for my peers, and I was on one that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go down.”
Growing up in what she calls the “girl power revolution of the ’90s,” Fleshman was made to believe she could do anything her male peers could do. But as an athlete, puberty hit her hard. She describes getting her period as an obstacle, “an extra burden that my male peers didn’t have to deal with.” The development of breasts and hips, she says, was “terrible, as if they threatened the future I wanted in sports.”
Despite this, Fleshman went on to have a very successful running career, breaking the American junior record in the 5,000 meters the first time she ran it, which qualified her for the Olympic trials. She was a five-time NCAA champion at Stanford University and later won two national championships as a professional athlete.
But along the way, she noticed a surprising number of female teammates leaving the sport. Many who followed it developed eating disorders or other physical or mental health problems. Fleshman says too many trainers seem to have assumed — wrongly — that what works for men’s bodies will also benefit women’s bodies.
“The male body, between the ages of 18 and 22, squeezes more juice out of every squeeze when it comes to training. Their hormonal profile is such that their recovery time is faster,” she says. Meanwhile, Fleshman notes, improvement times for female runners tend to slow down between those same ages.
“That creates a lot of tension for female athletes about their bodies,” says Fleshman. “There’s a basic level of education that coaches need to acquire, not only in physiology, but also in the social understanding of what they do, the cultural environment they create, that works against their goals of a healthy, consistent, best-performing team.”
Fleshman became a coach and is now an activist working to promote equality in sports by recognizing the differences in men’s and women’s bodies. Her new book, Good for a girl: a woman runs in a man’s world, is a memoir and critique of the way the sports world treats female athletes.
Highlights of the interview
About why he likes to run
I loved to run in the way that many little children do, when they would naturally run. It felt like flying. It felt like freedom. … I joined [the team] in high school, and until then it meant belonging to me, research. We would go on these runs as a group in the foothills of our city and be able to see the sights of my city from a new perspective, explore different neighborhoods. My world has become much bigger through the sport of running. I also liked that when you’re running alongside someone, you can have a more vulnerable, honest conversation than when you’re sitting across the table from each other. There is something that simply opens you up with movement. And so I just developed these deep connections and also this deeper understanding of myself. It seemed natural to me.
Menstruation is often invisible and is thought of negatively
When I got my period, it was later than most of my peers, it was around the age of 17, and I didn’t want it. … It felt like something I had to navigate on my own, and the effects it would have on my mood or body composition, bloating, all those things seemed like a roller coaster to navigate … and my male peers didn’t And I felt resentful about it, especially since it was invisible to my coaches and health professionals around me. It was kind of like, “Oh, just figure out how to deal with it.” So it’s understandable why so many girls don’t have a positive attitude about their period, which is really a shame, because our menstrual cycle is so critical to the healthy functioning of our bodies.
About how breast development in girls affects their participation in sports
All research currently shows that this is very common, and that it extends beyond runners. Seventy-three percent of girls reported at least one concern about their breasts in relation to high school sports, and half felt that their breasts affected their participation. But the way we talk about breasts is very sexualized or we don’t talk about them. They are a bit of a heavy topic when they should really just be the factual, basic lived experience of half the population. Eighty-seven percent of girls wanted to know more about breasts and especially about sports bras. So we know that the lack of sports bras is one of the reasons why we are losing girls to sports.
On Weight Training Strategies That Are Harmful
One of the most common is simply having an “ideal” athlete body in mind that you expect your team to work towards. When you consider all the diversity of our genetics and our individuality, the idea that everyone should be molded into any particular model is absurd. There are public weigh-ins that happen regularly in programs or body fat tests that are consistent enough for athletes to fixate on it. Athletes are given very small ranges of acceptable body fat for an elite athlete that are based on 28-year-old Olympic bodies, not 20-year-old adolescent bodies at the very peak of development.
There is also food control — where coaches will not allow certain types of food for their athletes. They will comment on the athlete’s body in front of their teammates. Another thing they will do is point out when someone looks “fit” and give a lot of personal attention to athletes who achieve this body ideal, then withhold positive interaction with athletes who don’t. And these are subtle ways of consistently telling athletes that they need to change who they are, in order to be invested in and cared for. And it’s not even based on real science. That’s the thing. It would be wrong even if it did, because it creates such an unhealthy environment for athletes.
Both acknowledge gender-based differences in sport while also including transgender athletes
That’s obviously a very contentious, complicated issue that we’re wrestling with in the culture right now. And I’ve evolved quite a bit in my perspective on this topic from being defensive about what I considered women’s sports from a sex-based perspective to being very much in favor of including trans athletes in every aspect of life, including sports. But it took a bit of a journey because I’m very familiar with the gender differences in sports. I lived it. I watched it. They exist — the denial of their existence by some trans rights activists in this space, or the fear of looking at that science or trying to debunk it, has created a lot of resistance for me, and I see it in many athletes who have raced against time. . That’s the thing that we have to admit – that the gender gap exists and we hold that on the one hand, and on the other hand we hold that inclusion is extremely important and that our definition of fairness is so narrow.
If we’re just looking at the fairness of who’s competing in the Olympics and who’s experienced what kind of puberty and whatnot, you can do that if you want. You can spend all your time focusing on that, but honesty is much more than that. And we can keep the gender, those differences and still be for inclusion. And I think that’s really key to trans inclusion — not denying the science that we know, not denying the lived experiences of female-bodied people, but simply deciding that even given some of those things, we’re still choosing to compete together to be an inclusive space and to experience all the benefits of having trans people on our teams in our lives and competing with us.
On women’s running uniforms
Male runners generally wear baggy shorts and a jersey that covers the entire torso. In some running events, especially the faster sprint events, men’s clothing will be a tight shirt that also covers the torso. Women’s sports uniforms are like a little bathing suit bottom with your butt cheeks hanging out or a very, very short panty they call a sassy bottom or something. And then a midriff-baring cropped top that’s also fitted and tight.
If there was a true sporting advantage to wearing the clothes that female athletes are required, even by the rules, to wear in sports, male athletes would do it too. The best athletes in the world will want to do what is the biggest performance advantage. The history of women’s uniforms being designed the way they are today began in the wake of Title IX, when there was a great fear that sports would masculinize girls, make them gay — all these homophobic fears about participating in activities traditionally viewed as male spaces.
On refusing to go naked for a Nike ad campaign — and instead using the ad to comment on the objectification of female athletes
My first big shot at an ad campaign with Nike, I was so excited. I simply could not believe that I would get this opportunity to be used in an advertising and poster campaign, the media wrote about it. But then when I got the look and feel from the creative agency, it was a picture of Brandi Chastain, the soccer player, from an old ad where she was bent over naked with a soccer ball. It was very provocative. … And I got goosebumps when I saw that. … [Just like] to be in Playboy magazine as an athlete was a sign that you made it, or to be on the cover of another magazine shown in a dress or underwear or feminized in some way. And I just thought, why are we doing this? Why? It has nothing to do with the excellence that gave you the opportunity in the first place. And so I found the courage to ask them to do it differently, not to be portrayed in such a way.
I came up with an ad where I stand with my arms crossed in the running clothes I train in every day and look directly into the camera. And the ad was in first person, so I had a lot of control over how I was viewed and that added a lot of power to the ad, making it a very successful campaign. … [The caption was] “objectify me,” … and that should have gotten your attention. … And underneath it was written in fine print: “We study the women’s body to make them the best running shoes.”
Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Deborah Franklin adapted it for the web.