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To start Lauren Fleshman’s book Good for a Girl: A Woman Running in a Man’s World is to start with a question: did she mean something is good for a girl? Or a sarcastic she’s good… for a girl?
Maybe the answer is a little bit of both? Part memoir, part critique of a sports system built around a man’s body, Fleshman offers a searingly candid look at her own victimhood and complicity, interlaced with compelling data and concrete ideas on how we can change this environment.
Fleshman is a retired professional runner and an entrepreneur who co-founded Picky Bars and coached at Littlewing Athletics. Currently, she works as a brand strategy advisor for the female-led running brand, Oiselle, based out of Seattle. At a recent running camp by Oiselle, Fleshman mentioned that her intention for this book is to help readers re-think about the system. “We have an attribution problem. When there’s a pattern of struggle, we tend to put the blame on individuals, instead of the systems that they’re setting them up for. When it comes to attrition in coaching, women in tech… so many examples of predictable friction points that keep women out (of a smooth advancement curve). We’re living our lives in a world that wasn’t built for us. If you can’t see yourself in my exact story, I hope you can recognize yourself in moments of your life when you fell off the train, but it wasn’t your fault. We are worthy of building a system around ourselves.”
The story is always personal. Fleshman started and ended the book with her father, who was an alcoholic. The loving yet turbulent relationship between the two set the foundation of both Fleshman’s courage and insecurity about her options. “I lived a lot of my teenage years and my twenties hedging… I came from a place without a lot of financial stability. I had a lot of opportunities… but I also felt they could be taken away at any moment,” said Fleshman.
The working-class family background was Fleshman’s shadow behind her fierce competition on the track and at cross-country races, both to satisfy her own curiosity, and to win her father’s approval. Until one day, she realized she was performing to belong to a club marked with power. “Greatness, it seemed, offered a sort of protection, honorary membership to a more powerful class. Now I felt even more motivation to win.” Fleshman writes.
And win did Fleshman: five NCAA championships at Stanford and two national championships. Yet like most of the elite runners, Fleshman’s decorated career is filled with many failures and abject heartbreaks: missing the Olympics team twice due to injuries and poor timing of training, coming in dead last at the Olympic Trials in 2012. Her laser focus on winning to her best ability has muted a little voice inside: something isn’t quite right with female athletes.
- Hyper sexualization of the female body, from abstaining from discussing the breast, to racing uniforms that highlight the sexual desirability of a female body, to even Runner’s World’s magazine cover photo guidelines (tight shorts and revealing mid-section) years ago.
- Unrealistic body-image expectations that come along with elite racing: the ridiculous standard of the jiggle test: the expectation that your body should be so lean that nothing on it should jiggle when you bounce. As a recreational runner myself, I chuckled reading this part, shaking my head with disbelief. I used to think elite runners are simply past the body comparison stage, unlike us middle to back of the pack runners. Who would’ve thought the elites have it even worse than the rest of us? The comparison trap spares no one.
- A total disregard of the female development curve: puberty, menstruation, childbearing and rearing, post-partum comeback… “Contracts penalized the rocky road inherent to life, especially the one commonly traveled by women.” Fleshman writes. As a result, 65% of female athletes develop disordered eating habits. RED-S, Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, is prevalent among female elite athletes.
It was the female athletes’ obsession with the body and the right racing weight that led Fleshman to reflect about her role in running, besides winning. Yet, she waited for her turn to speak. She operated under the assumption that only winning would give her a voice and credibility. She had to be “good” to be heard. “They weren’t talking unless they were winning, reflecting back on rough times long gone.”
It wasn’t until she met the Oiselle crew in her 30s that she started to piece together how these issues are connected to each other. In the meantime, her Ask Lauren Fleshman website had been growing its readership steadily. She was getting inquiries frequently about the female body, with a common theme around “what’s wrong with me?”. These forces finally came together to make her realize she wasn’t alone in feeling alienated, powerless and disposable in the world of professional running. She joined Oiselle as a partner in 2013, with a dream to build a system “entirely around the female athlete”.
Fleshman is still hard at work creating conversations around the equality female athletes deserve. In the meantime, she’s candid about how the traditional white-female-centric feminism has failed repeatedly. “Like generations of white feminists before me, I believed the most important thing was getting in the room with those in power; once rights had been secured for the group white men were most likely to cede it to, then it would be easier to expand those rights to others, or they would somehow miraculously trickle down. I couldn’t have been more wrong.” Fleshman, along with Oiselle, has been on a learning journey of intersectional feminism, decentering the female body from the overall harmful sports environment. Recently, she has also been vocal about trans-women’s inclusion in sports.
Fleshman is an undeniably masterful storyteller, owning her own complicity in the system while holding others accountable, in a loving and nuanced way. It’s impossible to critique the “system” without talking about the complex characters in her life. “You can’t write a memoir if you’re afraid to hurt people,” Fleshman said. To this end, she writes bravely about coaches’ lack of understanding of a woman’s body and their failure to protect it. When a coach mentioned that the women’s team did not have integrity like the men’s team, Fleshman writes, “There was nothing overtly inappropriate about Vin’s integrity talk. All those observations were true to some extent… What makes me cringe now is Vin’s – and my – inclination to place blame on the women, without any acknowledgement of the forces at play for us. The outcomes he described – eating disorders, self-harm, self-sabotage – predictably show up on teams all over the world. But instead of asking why, we shake our heads in frustration and continue to blame the women. These behaviors look like personal choices, but they are choices made within a particular sporting environment that women had to fight to get access to but did not get a chance to create.” (pg 84).
With the same delicacy and courage, Fleshman examines her own complicity: “I had made comments among close friends, piled on when someone else criticized a poor performance, referred to someone as a head case.” (page 158) More than anything, it was the failure of inaction, first seeing a Black athlete’s struggle with a Nike contract. “I didn’t think I could do anything about it. I didn’t think that was my job to do… It would take several years… to develop the courage to become an active ally.”
All the self-reflection and growth did not dampen the tenderness of Fleshman’s milestones so far: leaving for college, getting married to Jesse Thomas, and her father’s death.
For anyone who has ever left the comfort of childhood home in pursuit of their/his/her own life, Fleshman’s writing feels like inserting a scalpel into an old wound of guilt. “I wasn’t coming back, not really. I speed down the freeway with the windows open while my air conditioner tried to catch up. I felt selfish. A good daughter would stay closer for college, emotionally support her mom and sister, keep attempting to predict and moderate the tides of her dad’s alcoholism. But I didn’t want to be a good daughter. I wanted the freedom to make a life.” She quotes from Freeman in Paris, Joni Mitchell’s masterwork, “Nobody calling me up for favors, no one’s future to decide but my own.” (page 59) Tears started to flow when I read this part. There’s nothing more morose than being reminded of all the people you’ve left behind as an immigrant.
The levity and joy from the scene of Fleshman and Jesse Thomas’s wedding excludes from the page: “it was perfect – low on budget, but high on personality… Kids fell asleep on parents’ shoulders in cookie comas. Someone passed out on the front lawn. Someone else went home with the photographer. It was exactly what we hoped for.” If you’re a believer of economics professors Andrew Francis-Tan and Hugo M Mialon’s study on the inverse relationship between cost of a wedding and the length of a marriage (the less you spend on a wedding, the longer the marriage tends to last), you’ll be rooting for the long-lasting marriage between these true partners in life.
Fleshman ends the book with a dream and a run. After her father’s passing, she woke up with her father in his youth, standing by the closet. “The idea of ghosts bent all logical reasoning, but I had no choice but to accept… knowing I would be facing my first day without him.” Grief leaks out of the page, with nowhere to go but to stain the page like ocean-blue ink. So much love. So much sorrow.
Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club was a guiding light through months of Fleshman’s writing journey, amid a global pandemic and a personal mental health crisis. Navigating through many false starts, Fleshman went the extra mile and had the book vetted by a panel composed of a scientist, a journalist, a filmmaker and a writing professor for data rigor and story clarity.
What struck me the most, though, is the wide range of emotions I felt reading her memoir: The intensity of the heartache, the disappointment, anger, triumph, disbelief, and frustration, the joy, but the most important of all these was her unbridled love of running and life.