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Q&A: Lauren Fleshman Asks Readers to View Sport Through a Feminine Lens

The former elite runner and coach has released her memoir Good For a Girl as “an offering” to the sport.

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Lauren Fleshman, 41, is no doubt a gifted runner. In her time at Stanford University she won five NCAA championships. As a professional, she won two national championships in the 5,000 meters. At 34-years-old she retired after dealing with a challenging string of injuries over several years. She went on to coach the Oiselle-sponsored Littlewing Athletics.

Fleshman is also a rare, gifted observer. From the time she stepped on the track, she was internally cataloging her experience in relation to those around her, trying to find the gaps between what people said and what they did. They told her “you’re not like the other girls.”

From high school to college to running professionally to coaching, Fleshman observes how the men and women around her are navigating the sport both similarly and differently and figuring out what she can learn from their experiences. Sometimes she learns the wrong lesson.

Looking back on it all now in Good For a Girl, Fleshman sees clearly where girls and women are wrongfully challenged by aspects of the industry that weren’t designed for them. She tells her story chronologically and with a magnifying glass to the truth in the hopes that her observations illuminate an accurate lived experience of a female athlete. Spoiler alert: it’s not all shimmering sentiments of girl power and podium finishes.

We spoke with Fleshman about what it was like writing the book and what she hopes becomes of running for women.

RELATED: Book Review: Good For A Girl by Lauren Fleshman

Lauren Fleshman: Good for a Girl

(Photo: Kirby Lee, Courtney White, Heather McWhirter)

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Women’s Running: When did you know you wanted to write a book about your experience as a female athlete?

Lauren Fleshman: I’ve always been moved by memoir, in particular. I don’t generally read sports books. They’re just not my favorite kinds of memoirs. But memoir, digging into the truth of somebody’s life, has changed my life, over and over again. So I think that as I was experiencing this amazing, crazy career, of getting onto these stages and into these rooms, and having all this self-discovery, I could tell that I was living a story that I’d like to tell one day, but I didn’t know when that would be. When do you get to the point of the story, where you pause and it has a beginning and a middle and an end? What made me write the book when I [did] was realizing that while I might be moving away from the elite side of the sport soon, not just for myself, but in coaching – that I wanted to create the book as an offering to the community that I’ve been a part of for so long and and use the knowledge and my unique way of looking at things too to try to improve some of the stubborn problems that I’ve just watched feel unsolvable, frankly.

Every time a new news story shows up about a female athlete who has been abused, or a promising young athlete that leaves due to an eating disorder, or online influencers who are recreational runners talking a lot about their body image and body shaming, and not feeling like they can live in their body without it taking up a bunch of space in their head – I just was like, I need to write this book. I need to write this book and then give it as an offering. And then the rest is none of my business in a way. What comes next? I don’t know.

WR: Can you elaborate on what you mean by stepping away from the elite side of sport? What does your relationship with running look like right now or what do you hope it will look like?

LF: Running has played so many different roles in my life. It started as a way to feel connected to my body and to feel my animal self, running fast and watching the way my body made decisions on its own through its internal calculator. And then it was a way for me to experience freedom and exploration. And then belonging and team. And then excellence and drive. And then heartache and a method for learning.

It just has been the central focal point, really, and everything else had to be built around it. Even when I retired from racing and became an elite coach, my life was still dictated by the elite athlete schedule for competitions and the Olympic cycle and everything. I am now at a place where I don’t want that to be the center of my life – the moon for my tides, right? I want to be someone who runs because I love it. I want to use it as a tool for my mental and physical health and a way for me to have community, but not my central or only community. I’m making more space in my life for the other parts of me, my creative and artistic side, for queer community, for Nordic skiing, and mountain biking, like just other sports where there isn’t a lot of overlap, none of my biking friends run. I’m enjoying that. I’m enjoying the novelty and the being a beginner of things again.

WR: You wrote on Instagram that you will never be the same since writing this book. What was it like reflecting on your career in that way?

LF: There were parts of it that were really tough. Because my goal was to write an honest memoir, which meant that I needed to question some of the stories that I had grown attached to, of the way things happened. We like to make ourselves the hero of our story a lot of times, but we also can be the problem. That process of going through my old stories and re-evaluating them was hard.

And then also writing about other people that may or may not like being written about. My mom didn’t love that I was writing this book because it included stories from my childhood that she felt made her look bad. So the part of me that is a people pleaser has had to do a lot of challenging work in deciding how to navigate who owns which stories, and am I telling someone else’s story for a purpose? And am I telling it truthfully? And is it mean spirited?

WR: Who do you hope reads this book?

LF: Parents of runners or parents of female athletes, I guess I should say more broadly, because the statistics for a lot of the harm caused extend far beyond the sport of running. Parents have so much power to impact the lives of their kids and offer protection when the outer world can be a harsh place. And they can also collectively demand more of their coaches, of their athlete’s teams or the administrators at their schools. Parents are really a powerful force.

And then the athletes themselves, I think of all ages. It’s really hard for me to pick an age because some of the early readers who have read this that are in their 50s and 60s, it was way more meaningful for them than I thought it would be. I think it’s very affirming for a lot of people who have questions about their experience or unresolved feelings about themselves as an athlete of any ability or level, especially when it comes to the body image issues, which is so universal. How much space is taken up in our mind by what our body looks like, or how it’s viewed by others, and how that holds us back? That’s a strong theme in the book. So any woman that is interested in exploring that a little bit and really reading some honest writing about that, I think would benefit from this book.

And then another group is just dads. I know I said parents already, but dads specifically. I am so impressed with dads of this generation. They are so determined to do right by their kids and their daughters more than ever. They’re active parents. And I like the dads that have read it or just like, ‘thank you so much.’ It’s like a hack to an inner world that they weren’t given access to and their youth and their adolescence. And they need this information to truly be able to be there for their kids.

WR: Your relationship with gender is obviously a huge theme in the book – do you think athletics have made any progress in respecting people’s experience of gender identity? 

LF: I definitely do, especially when it comes to queer people in sport. But recent research still shows that being on a sports team is a barrier to a lot of young athletes coming out, because they are sex or gender separated. And homophobia is still rampant in culture. So I thought that was interesting that being an athlete can make it harder to come out for some people. But I do think that we have a lot of a lot more queer role models in sport now. And so that goes a long way, what are the professionals willing to share about themselves and use that power to normalize or create acceptance for?

But in some ways, it’s less safe than ever, with all of the bills that are attacking trans youth. A lot of the debate that should be vibrant about sex and gender and sport has become violent and mean. We do need to be having these conversations about categorizing sport and whatnot, but it leads to abuse and a lot of mental health problems. That is the fallout of creating that toxic environment.

WR: You’ve clearly done a lot of research to pull this book together. Was there anything you learned in researching that really surprised you?

LF: I was surprised that the research really did show the things that I suspected were going on. In the story, I take people through chronologically, so I’m experiencing it in my body, and I’m experiencing it through observation of my peers. And when you see things going wrong, my detective brain kicks in to be like, ‘Why is this going wrong for this person, but not for this person? How can I avoid problems and maximize success?’ And it wasn’t until the second half of the book when I’m studying human biology and physiology and then I’m studying issues regarding gender identity and feminism and things that affect the greater culture, the forces at play that are much bigger than sport, and realizing how they show up in sport. That’s where the power of the research really comes in. And I was really surprised at just how consistently female-bodied people run into friction in these male-based sports systems, and how it shows up in mental health numbers, physical health numbers, bone density, stress fractures, our sense of self, our confidence. We’re getting hit all these different ways from age 12 and a half when breasts develop through menopause and beyond. That just made me feel really convicted that this is a problem. And also it’s solvable. If a pattern is that obvious, then it should be relatively easy to advocate for change.

WR: What makes it so solvable in your opinion?  

LF: The foundation of the solution is easy; which is that we must acknowledge that female-bodied people are living in a different experience through puberty and adolescence – and always – than male-bodied people in our culture. And that our systems were built by men for men and boys originally. We were actively excluded as women and girls.

What we’re doing now is this assumption that equality means us getting what they have exactly the way they have it – that somehow we should just keep presuming that the way it has always been done is the best way and that is what we want. So by taking a look through a different lens – like through a female lens – at a sports system, or any analogous system that was built by men, for men and boys, originally, when we take a female lens, and we’re like, ‘how are we actually doing in this space? What’s actually happening here? How’s our health? How’s our thriving? How could we make a difference for us, specifically, by centering us? What would we do differently?’ That means we have to acknowledge difference, lean into difference, accept it.

WR: In the ‘C is for Courage’ chapter you have an interaction with a reporter where he mentions that the point of the sport is to make the Olympics, which you narrowly miss, and you respond by saying you get to decide what the point is. So to flip that back on you, what has been the point of all this?

LF: I mean, what’s the point of our life? That’s a bigger question. And there’s more than one valid answer, probably. But to me, I think that the point is, can we move? Do we have a world that we can move through? Do we feel safe being our full self, where being our full self doesn’t come with consequences, if that full self isn’t hurting other people? Is there room for us? Are we viewed as valid? Are we accommodated? Or do we create systems that make life a tighter and tighter cage around us or make you need to sacrifice who you are in order to fit into them?

I believe we sell sport, especially for girls, as this place of empowerment, of expression, of claiming our bodies for ourselves again, instead of having our bodies be sexualized by others. This is a space where we use our bodies for our own means. But is that really what’s happening? Where are the places that it’s actually falling short of that? And if we can identify them, then we can do something about it.

In my book I find myself and lose myself in the sport of running repeatedly. That’s the story of all of our lives: finding ourselves and losing ourselves and fighting to get ourselves back again. And then something knocks us off course again, and we fight to get ourselves back again. Some people live their whole lives, never feeling like they’ve claimed themselves back. Eating disorders is probably the biggest one or disordered eating in general, that robs women of living life to their fullest, most joyful, most present lives. And that is interwoven in running culture quite a bit. So I’m hopeful that I’ve presented a case for the joy and the power of a sport worth fighting for and worth pushing to fulfill its promise, worth tearing down the barriers to make it as good as it can be.

RELATED: A New Way To Think About Body Image by Lauren Fleshman

Interested to hear more?  Listen to Lauren Fleshman being interviewed on NPR