TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, champion distance runner Lauren Fleshman, is now a coach and activist working to reform the sports world to recognize the differences in male and female bodies. She wants to stop framing female puberty as a threat to performance, which results in practices that lead girls to become anorexic and stop menstruating, disrupting the hormonal function essential to building healthy bones and a healthy body. She says a surprising number of girls who enter sports programs aren't sticking around. For those who do, physical and mental health problems occur at surprising rates, and abuse is all too common. Many girls learn to hate their bodies.
As a professional runner, Fleshman says the only way to make a sustainable living is to get commercial endorsements. For years, she was under contract to Nike. She has ideas about how that kind of contract needs to be reformed, too. She's now under contract with Oiselle, a fitness apparel company for women runners, where she's a partner. Her new book, "Good For A Girl," is a memoir and a critique of how the sports world treats female athletes. Fleshman broke the American junior record in the 5,000 meters race the first time she ran it, which qualified her for the Olympic trials. She's a graduate of Stanford University, was a five-time NCAA champion and won two national championships as a professional. She retired from professional racing in 2016.
Lauren Fleshman, welcome to FRESH AIR. In middle school, you were famous not only for winning races but for beating the boys in school. And then one day, you lost to a boy, and you were crushed. In retrospect, you attribute that to your body changing with puberty. What changes did you experience personally as an athlete as you went through puberty?
LAUREN FLESHMAN: Well, I had the benefit - I guess, in our current system, you'd call it that - of being a late bloomer. So when I first got beat by one of my male peers in middle school in the mile, it was because he hit puberty and kind of skyrocketed his performance in the mile in a very short period of time. And I had been led to believe that I could do anything that my male peers could do in the girl power revolution of the '90s and very much internalized that and thought it applied to sport, as well. And winning and being the fastest runner overall, out of everyone in my school in middle school was part of my identity. So it was very disorienting to find out that puberty was going to create two different paths for my male peers and my female peers and that I was on the one that I wasn't so sure I wanted to be on.
GROSS: Yeah. You actually tried to resist puberty for a while. You write, (reading) a period was a rite of passage into womanhood, and womanhood didn't stand for anything I wanted.
What did womanhood stand for compared to what you wanted?
FLESHMAN: Womanhood stood for more of appealing to a male audience - so being attractive to men. You look through any magazine, and there's very - a lot of concern around what you look like, how you're seen by others. Curves are a big part of that, breasts, hips - these differentiating female characteristics to a standard male characteristic. But those body parts were viewed as impediments to sport performance because they deviated from the male peers. And there was a lot of negative attitudes towards breasts and hips, body composition changes that didn't really make me feel like I would have anything to gain by having those experiences. Instead, they felt scary. Like, they threatened the future that I wanted in sport.
GROSS: You prayed for small breasts. I don't know what size your breasts are, but...
FLESHMAN: Pretty small (laughter).
GROSS: OK. Did you consider them an impediment? Because you write that it's really important for coaches and the people and the girls or women they coach to talk about breasts. So can you talk a little bit about the importance of breasts when you're a runner and how they affect your ability to run? And I want you to answer that personally and then more generally.
FLESHMAN: Well, when I first started noticing breasts developing, it was in middle school. And 12 1/2 years old is the average age at which breasts develop, and they're the first sign of female puberty. We often attribute menstruation as the first sign, but that comes about two years later. So really, these breasts developing during middle school time, on average, was what I was seeing, and I could see it in my friends that movement felt different to them. They were self-conscious about the way their breasts were moving. I didn't have that going on. And so I felt this kind of trepidation and fear. And I saw it affect their willingness to play hide and seek with me after school, for example. They were less enthusiastic about tag.
And all of the research currently shows that this is extremely common. It extends well beyond runners. Seventy-three percent of girls reported at least one breast-related concern related to sports in middle school age, and half of them felt that breasts affected their participation. But the way that we talk about breasts is very sexualized, or we don't talk about them. They're a little bit of a tough subject when they really should just be a factual, basic lived experience of half the population. And 87% of girls wanted to know more about breasts and sports bras specifically. So we know that the lack of sports bras is one of the reasons why we're losing girls in sport. And I saw it happening around me, but it wasn't happening to me until much later.
GROSS: So I want to ask you about menstruation and performance. Did you find that, when you started getting your period, that it affected your performance as a runner? I mean, did you get cramps or any other kind of symptoms from your period?
FLESHMAN: When I got my period, it was later than most of my peers. It was around age 17. And I didn't want it. It was an impediment. It felt like this added burden that my male peers didn't have to deal with. And because it wasn't something that was openly talked about in a sports environment and still isn't - 87% of girls don't talk to their coaches about their period - it was - felt like something I had to navigate alone. And the effects that it would have on my mood or my body composition, bloating, all those things felt like this roller coaster that I had to navigate sports through, and my male peers didn't. And I felt resentful of that, especially since it was invisible to my coaches and to the 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 view of their period, and - which is really unfortunate because our menstrual cycle is so critical to the healthy functioning of our bodies. And we are sort of taught to view it as a fertility tool. And if you're not interested in fertility and having a baby any time soon, then it - or maybe we go so far as to recognize it as important for bone density, but it has so many other important things to our functioning as females, and we just don't know it. We're not taught it. And there's a lot of new research out right now that is helping get that information out. And that's going to make a big difference if coaches were educated on that.
GROSS: Your periods became irregular when you were young, and that pleased you. Did you do something intentionally to make your periods irregular and get them less frequently? Or was that a surprising side effect for you of having developed an eating disorder?
FLESHMAN: I didn't feel like I did it on purpose at first. It just wasn't something I was taught to value. And so if it happened to disappear because I was training a lot and maybe wasn't timing my nutrition well or was just not quite meeting my nutritional needs even before I had disordered eating - it's super common for girls to have menstrual dysfunction long before they have any disordered eating problems. It can just be 'cause you're working really hard, and then you have class, and you're just - you can't catch up nutritionally. And the female body's menstrual cycle is this amazing kind of canary in the coal mine that that becomes affected as an early sign of low energy availability. And so if we're taught to look at the loss of our period as an important signal that something's not right in our body and that we will be headed down a path of injury or compromised immune system or compromised mental health if we don't get it back, then we will feel entirely different about a lost period.
But I didn't have any of that information at the time, and a lot of girls still don't have that information. So we just don't have anything in the prose column to motivate us to maintain a healthy menstrual cycle and manage the things that come with that - the mood changes and the body weight fluctuations and all that stuff that's entirely normal but doesn't feel valued or normal in a sports world that favors the male body norms of consistency, you know, of just, like, predictable improvement over time with training. I mean, that's just not the female bodied experience during development.
GROSS: And you had some really bad stress injuries in your feet, stress-related injuries, broken bones. Do you attribute that at all to the period of poor nutrition when you had, as you describe it, disordered eating and to your menstrual cycle being so irregular as a result of that? Do you think that you had, like, early osteoporosis, or weak bones?
FLESHMAN: Yeah. The period of time where I had low energy availability and was depriving myself and trying to reach a certain goal weight that was below the weight that I was, that is undoubtably the reason why I experienced stress fractures and higher anxiety and a lot of other negative health consequences that cost me a lot of time in my career. The problem is in some sports, when you lose some weight, initially, you'll get a short-term advantage from that. It affects the physics of your movement. And this doesn't happen for everyone, but it happens often enough that it creates a kind of a bad example that others will follow. But then, the end of that path is always experiencing a crash of some kind.
And so I was - I experienced the high for a while and then crashed and had to reevaluate the decisions I was making. But it's a trap in girl sports because, again, if you have an environment that criticizes increased body fat, that says things like, if you're fit, then when you jump, nothing should jiggle, things like that are completely unrealistic and unhealthy standards for developing female bodies. But they worm their way into your head, and they create a conflict with every part of your body that isn't complying.
GROSS: You write about some of the strategies you've witnessed or heard about that some coaches have used to deal with shaming women to correct their bodies and lose weight. What are some of those strategies?
FLESHMAN: One of the most common ones is just having an ideal athlete body in mind that you expect your team to work their way towards. When you consider all of the diversity in our genetics and our individuality, that's an absurd idea - that everyone should mold themselves into some particular model. There are public weigh-ins that happen regularly in programs or body fat tests that are consistent enough to have athletes become fixated on it. Athletes are given small, very small ranges of acceptable body fat for an elite athlete that are based on 28-year-old Olympian bodies and not 20-year-old adolescent bodies that are in the thick of developing.
There's also food policing, where coaches will not allow certain types of food for their athletes. They will make body comments on athletes in front of their teammates. Another thing they'll do is point out when someone looks fit and give a lot of personal attention to athletes that attain this body ideal and then withhold positive interaction from athletes that don't. And those are subtle ways of consistently telling athletes that in order to be invested in and cared about, they must change who they are.
And it's not even based on real science. That's the thing, is it would be wrong even if it was because it creates such an unhealthy environment for athletes. But it is based on assumptions that what works for male bodies is what works for female bodies, and it's just not true. So there's a basic level of education that coaches need to get not just in physiology, but also in understanding socially, what they're doing culturally, the environment they're creating, that is working against their goals of having a healthy, consistent team that performs at their best.
GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then, we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is champion runner Lauren Fleshman. She's now a feminist activist in the sports world and a coach. Her new book is called "Good For A Girl." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "TRAINS 2")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with champion runner Lauren Fleshman. Her new book, "Good For A Girl," is part memoir and part critique of how girls and women are treated in the sports world, particularly the running world, in ways that punish them for having female bodies. Fleshman is now an activist and a coach.
You write about how male bodies during the years of 18 to 22 years old are, like, developing more muscle and, you know, getting stronger, growth spurts, all of that whereas the female body at that time is, you know, preparing for the possibility of motherhood, you know, hips...
GROSS: ...Breasts. Would you say a certain softness?
FLESHMAN: Yeah. The male body between 18 and 22 is getting more juice out of every squeeze when it comes to training. Their hormonal profile is such that their recovery time is quicker. Their improvement curve is steeper during those years than the female one. And the female body is optimizing for fertility and having a child. Whether or not that's anywhere on your radar, that's what your body is prioritizing in the types of tissues it invests in and systems it invests in. And some of those are not immediately beneficial to sports performance. They require a period of time for you to adapt to them and adjust in your ligaments and tendons. So our improvement really slows during that time, on average. But the expectation is that it should be mimicking a male improvement line, and that's where a lot of tension is created for female athletes around their body, a lot of resistance.
Over half of NCAA Division 1 athletes felt that their bodies needed to change for their sport. Ninety-seven percent of those felt that change should be losing weight, and it was an average of 13 pounds, which is kind of mind-boggling to me when college athletes - one might assume that they have the highest body confidence, that they have these honed bodies from training for many years that they'd be pleased with. But if over half of them are feeling that they need to change it and if their body satisfaction is actually lower than their nonathlete peers, that should really show us that there's something strange going on.
GROSS: Yeah. You know, I have to say, some of this is making me really uncomfortable because I want to say women are equals, and women's bodies are as good as men's bodies, and, you know, women can do anything. But this is the - where, like, the word equity versus equality comes in when it comes to certain things because women should be treated in equitable ways. But you're saying we have to recognize that women's bodies and men's bodies are different, and we have to honor both kinds of bodies and not see one as a disadvantage.
FLESHMAN: Absolutely. And the ways that female bodies are currently different are viewed as a disadvantage. And that's what's changeable - our frame of mind. And it's exactly as you say - we have to take an equity lens. We just haven't really done that in sports yet because we only got access through Title IX 50 years ago. And the way that we got that access was through a liberal, feminist campaign of sameness because difference has been the tool of oppression, historically, for marginalized groups over and over again through history.
So unless you feel safe talking about your sex-based differences and that they won't be used against you, your best bet, your safest bet is to focus on how the same you are. And that was a massively successful strategy in the '70s of passing Title IX, like a lot of legislation that passed on that. And it requires a certain amount of time to then feel safe enough in those spaces to say, hey, getting exactly what the men have the way they have it actually isn't working out as great for us because we have some differences, and we would like to have our environments designed around those.
GROSS: I also want to ask a question about trans athletes. You know, if you're saying that, you know, men's bodies develop in different ways that favor, like, you know, strength and endurance and that women's bodies, as they prepare for the possibility of motherhood, don't function in the same way as male bodies - so given that, if somebody is a trans woman and developed for years as a male and maybe went through puberty as a male and then becomes a trans woman, did they have certain advantages, physically, hormonally, that will give them advantages in the sport that they've chosen?
FLESHMAN: That's a really good question. And it's obviously a very contentious, complicated issue that we're wrestling with in culture right now. And I have evolved my perspective a lot on this subject from a place of defensiveness of what I viewed as women's sports from a sex-based perspective to being very pro-inclusion of trans athletes in every aspect of life, including sports. But that took a little bit of a journey because I am so familiar with sex-based differences in sport. I've lived it. I've watched it. They exist - that to have some trans rights activists in this space denying that those exist or of - not - kind of being afraid of looking at that science or looking to debunk it created a lot of resistance in me, and I see it in a lot of the athletes that I have raced against over time. Or it's a thing that - we have to acknowledge that sex-based difference exists and hold that in one hand and hold in the other hand that inclusion is extremely important and that our definition of fairness is so narrow.
If we're only looking at fairness as, you know, who's competing in the Olympic Games and who has experienced what kind of puberty and whatever - you can do that if you want to. You can spend all your time focused on that. But fairness is about a lot more than that. And we can hold the sex-based differences and still be for inclusion. And I think that's actually critical to the inclusion of trans people is not denying the science that we know, not denying the lived experiences of female-bodied people but just deciding that even given some of those things, we still choose to compete together to be an inclusive space and experience all the benefits of having trans people on our teams, in our lives and competing alongside us.
GROSS: So let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Lauren Fleshman. Her new book is called "Good For A Girl." We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WYNTON MARSALIS' "JUMP START - THE MASTERY OF MELANCHOLY: BOOGIE WOOGIE STOMP")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Lauren Fleshman, a runner who won five NCAA championships with Stanford University and two national championships as a professional runner. Her new book, "Good For A Girl," is part memoir and part critique of how the sports world, which is designed for men by men, needs to stop practices that punish girls and women for having female bodies that don't conform to the norms of male bodies.
I want to talk with you about uniforms. Compare what male and female runners are expected to wear.
FLESHMAN: Male runners generally wear a looser-fitting short and a jersey that covers the entire torso. It's - in some events in running, especially the faster sprint events, the male outfit will be a tight-fitting short that also covers the torso. Female athlete uniforms are like a little bathing suit bottom that your butt cheeks hang out of or a very, very short short that they call cheeky bottoms or something like that. And then a crop top that exposes your midriff, that's also form-fitting and tight.
GROSS: Now, is that supposed to give you any, like streamlined advantage for speed in running? Or is that purely to sexualize you (laughter)?
FLESHMAN: Yeah. If there was a true sports advantage to wearing the outfit that female athletes are bound by rules even to wear in sport, male athletes would do it too. The best athletes in the world will want to do what the - the biggest performance advantages. The history of female uniforms being designed as they are now started in the wake of Title IX when there was a lot of fear that sports was masculinizing girls, that it was making them gay - all of these homophobic fears around participating in activities that were traditionally viewed as men's spaces. And uniforms were a way, especially in - the 1984 Olympics was the kind of first big showcase of our post Title IX bounty of female athletes. There was a movement to figure out how to make people feel safer about these female athletes using their bodies in these aggressive ways and to feminize their uniforms was a very clear way to do that. To have a focus on your hair, your makeup, smiling for the camera - these are all still norms that are much more common in the female athlete space than the male athlete space.
GROSS: So what was it like for you as a runner in college, you know, winning NCAA championships or as a professional runner, being sexualized while you're performing as an athlete, which is all about strength, endurance, discipline, power? How did those tight-fitting shorts and the kind of midriff top exposing your navel - how did that make you feel on the track?
FLESHMAN: It creates a distraction for a lot of athletes. If you're in an insecure place at all with your body, having to put that on and know that you're going to be in a fishbowl of spectators and on television in that outfit, it's like an exaggerated anxiety of bikini season or bathing suit season...
FLESHMAN: ...For everyone. It's like, OK, I'm going on display here. What's the situation? How will I be seen by others? And that's an added layer that we're dealing with when we would love to just be focused on competing. We need to lose self-consciousness in order to reach our ultimate potential. So I found it very distracting during certain times of my life when I felt that I was in conflict with my body or my body wasn't, quote, "in shape" yet, or whatever the feelings I had about it at the time where it wasn't in peak form. And then it would be just another obstacle that I had to get over.
GROSS: Let's talk about running. What do you love about running? What made you first fall in love with running?
FLESHMAN: I loved running the way a lot of little children do when they would just burst into run naturally. It felt like flying. It felt like freedom. And I didn't participate in running in any organized way until the middle school weekly mile in P.E. class. But even that wasn't an official sport. So I joined in high school, and by then what it meant to me was belonging, exploring. We would take off on these runs as a group into the foothills around our town and get to see vistas of my town from a new perspective, get to explore different neighborhoods. My world got a lot bigger through the sport of running, and I also loved that when you run alongside somebody, you can have a more vulnerable, honest conversation than you can when you're sitting across the table from one another. There's something that just opens you up with the movement. And so I just developed these deep bonds and also these deeper understandings of myself. It just felt like a natural fit.
GROSS: You write that you never considered running outside of, like, phys ed class, and you changed your mind when a high school coach at the high school that you were about to go to after middle school basically recruited you for the team. His name was Dave DeLong. You mentioned his name a lot in the book. Do you think of him as having been a great coach? And if so, how did he help you?
FLESHMAN: DeLong was a phenomenal coach. He actually just retired last June, and I went and spoke at his retirement party, and he's left such a massive impact on generations of athletes. What he did really well was instill a love for the sport or really kind of like help us hold on to a love of the sport while introducing us to competition. There are some people who make it sound like competition is the buzzkill for the joy of the sport, and that the solution to a lot of our problems is to remove competition or to lower the stakes. But DeLong taught me that is not the case. You want to bring your natural joy that you've - that you have for the sport into competition and then hang on to that the best you can through little periods of anxiety or tough times, just - you're riding through those, holding on to your joy.
He did an amazing job of teaching a very diverse group of athletes what excellence was, and he defined it in a broad way so that you could still be excellent even if you were experiencing a performance dip related to puberty. You could be an excellent teammate, an excellent supporter. You could be an excellent leader of the warm-up drills or even excellent improvement of your strategy and tactics. Your time may be a little slower this season, but you've become a better competitor. And he helped us see those things in each other. And it made the changes of puberty a little less scary than it is for a lot of my peers. It was still scary, but it was - we had this protective buffer in DeLong that made it a little bit easier.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is champion runner Lauren Fleshman. She's now a feminist activist in the sports world and a coach. Her new book is called "Good For A Girl." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER QUARTET'S "MIGHTY MIGHTY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with champion runner Lauren Fleshman. Her new book "Good For A Girl" is part memoir and part critique of how girls and women are treated in sports, particularly in the running world, in ways that punish them for having female bodies. Fleshman is now an activist and coach.
You were a natural. When you started running, you just started winning races, including important ones. What did coaches teach you about focus, about how to be disciplined, how to - like, what to focus on when you're actually competing?
FLESHMAN: Well, I learned some good things, and I learned some unhelpful things that I had to undo later in life. One of the things about focus was just to focus on what you can control. That was helpful. So you create your own strategy with different phases, and you execute that strategy, and you try to make your strategy things you can control as often as possible. You can't control whether you win. You don't know what anybody else is going to do. But you can control whether you approach the first mile conservatively, whether you make a move in the middle and whether you put yourself in position to fight for the win at the end. Like, that's all you can control. So I think that I learned those mindsets, and they were helpful. Some of the unhelpful things - probably the most unhelpful thing was to ignore how you're feeling and blow through that to kind of, like, just bulldoze your way through difficult emotions or anxiety because that really just makes them grow. They eventually balloon up. And I didn't learn how to deal with those things until later in my career.
GROSS: So one of your strategies for winning in some races was to hold back and then fight for a win at the end. What kind of mental games do you have to play with yourself to not be at the front of the pack in a race and still feel confident that you're going to win because, at the very end, you're going to get ahead of everybody?
FLESHMAN: That's a good question. Each athlete has their different sets of strengths, and for some athletes, leading early is their best move. But in an event like mine, which is about 15 to 16 minutes long - the 5,000 meters - there is also a toll of leading. You are breaking the wind. You have the mental strain of setting the pace. And you have to stay in that place of focus and confidence for a very long time, knowing that there are people breathing down your neck behind you. Some people feel more comfortable in that space than the opposite.
But for me, I felt more comfortable letting other people make those decisions and do that labor and block that wind and trying to just be as calm and Zen and use as little energy as possible for as long as possible in the race, knowing that there was a certain point in the race where I had committed to making a move to shooting my shot - right? - and trusting that I had saved enough mental and physical energy early on and that I was strong enough and fast enough and tough enough that if I made that big move, they wouldn't be able to hold on to it, or they wouldn't be able to pass me back. And that proved to be my best strategy. It worked pretty well.
GROSS: When you're kind of running and starting to pass people and getting ahead, you know who you're passing 'cause they're in front of you, and suddenly, they're behind you. But when you're at the head of the pack and everybody else is behind you, you don't have eyes in back of your head, so you can't really see what's going on behind you. So how do you have a sense of that?
FLESHMAN: Well, you don't. Sometimes there's a Jumbotron screen that you can peek at, but I've found that not to be helpful. It just creates more anxiety. So once I've decided to make a big move in a 5k, which - my signature spot was 600 meters to go or 1 1/2 laps left. Once I made that decision, it didn't really matter what anyone was doing behind me because I would just ask myself, is this the fastest you can run? 'Cause it's not a matter of really pacing yourself at that point. It is about blasting off, showing your cards and just pedal to the metal, right? Just going. You're going. And so if I like - oh, I wonder if someone's coming close to me, I would then say, well, does it even matter? Like, are you actually running your fastest? And the answer would either be yes or no. And if it was no, I'd try to run a little faster. And then just eyes forward, like, get the most out of myself I can. Like, this is about me, not about them.
GROSS: What's the closest you ever came to passing out at the finish line?
FLESHMAN: Oh, man. Kicking, doing a finishing kick for 600 meters is almost a guaranteed way to pass out at the finish line or come close 'cause it's such a long time to be running as fast as you can. You end up in extreme oxygen debt. I've never actually passed out but many times have ended up on all fours, heaving, like, just my lungs and all the muscles between my ribs working overtime to get air in to re-oxygenate my blood. And that is - and then you just feel nauseous afterwards for a while. So it takes a little while to get from there to - wow, I really did it. I can now celebrate.
GROSS: What does it feel like to win? And is there a difference between winning as an individual and winning as a team?
FLESHMAN: Yes, there is a difference, and both feel absolutely incredible. Winning as a team, it feels like magical alignment because it's dependent on so many different people showing up and having a good day and executing on their plan. And all of - like, almost all of that is out of your control as an individual. So when that happens, you're delighted with your own performance and proud of these teammates and knowing their whole history and feeling good about what they did on the day - you feel that, too. So I think that feels better, that magic of feeling your feelings and their feelings, and it's just delightful. That's rare.
And most of my victories were individual victories, and so those would feel different depending on my state of mind. When I was in a period of my career of being highly critical of myself and just always raising the bar and driving for the next thing, a victory didn't feel that joyous along the way because it was, like, just expected, and then I was already on to the next thing. It wasn't until late in my career that I learned the importance of stopping to appreciate and feel the joy. Like, teach yourself to tap into the joy in those moments along the way so that you can experience it. And those victories were incredible. It just feels like you're invincible. You feel light. You feel like you're glowing. And there's this huge sense of pride and gratitude, that mixture of acknowledging your hard work but also the hard work of other people that helped you get there and just luck on the day. And that feels good.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you again. If you're just joining us, my guest is champion runner Lauren Fleshman. She's now a feminist activist in the sports world and a coach. Her new book is called "Good For A Girl." We'll be right back.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "POWERHOUSE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with champion runner Lauren Fleshman. Her new book, "Good For A Girl," is part memoir and part critique of how girls and women are treated in the sports world, particularly the running world, in ways that punish them for having female bodies. Fleshman is now an activist and coach.
So after college and after winning, you know, five NCAA championships at Stanford University, you became a professional runner. And you say the only way to make track and field a full-time career in America is to secure an endorsement deal with a major sports brand. And for you, that brand was Nike. And that's a really big deal. But you had problems with that as well. I wonder how you feel about that - that to really make a living as a professional runner, you have to align yourself with a commercial brand - because in a way, no matter how glamorous it may seem and lucrative it may seem to have an endorsement deal with a big company like Nike, basically, like, you're being paid to be a walking, moving billboard for that company. You're there to sell their shoes.
FLESHMAN: You are. And you don't really have any job security. It's an independent contractor role, so basic employment protections and benefits are nonexistent. The contracts are confidential in nature. So you don't really know - you rely on an agent to help you, tell you if it's fair or not. And there's just a lot of norms in the industry that are - feel impossible to change for individuals. You're treated like you're lucky to be here, so just take what you can get. Other sports, like WNBA, women's soccer, there's a league. And there are league minimums. And there's a union. So there's a - kind of a guarantee that at least some - you'll at least make some kind of a living. And that living won't be dependent on you being attractive to men.
Like, in an environment where you only get money if you are deemed a worthy marketing investment as an individual by a sports company, then that means that you need to fit whatever their ideal is as a marketing asset. It's not a charity. They're not looking to support people just because they're fast or can throw far or jump high. And so who you see reflected in running and a lot of individual sports that we watch in the Olympics isn't necessarily the best of the best, of the best talent-wise. It's who is the best that also fit the marketing rubric that the companies value and that they believe will sell shoes.
GROSS: Well, you were once asked to pose naked in a marketing campaign. What was the image supposed to be? And why did you decline to participate in that?
FLESHMAN: My first big shot at an ad campaign with Nike, I was so excited. I just couldn't believe that I was going to get this chance to be used in a commercial and a poster campaign, you know, media notice around 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. And it was very provocative, the way - a lot of the way women in media is designed to be provocative. And I just felt crestfallen when I saw that because I just thought, why?
Like, why is the sign of making it this - making it as a professional athlete, where Nike's going to use you in an ad, why is the first place they go mentally exposure, sexualizing you? And that was present outside of that one experience. I mean, I put the pieces together. Being in Playboy magazine as a female athlete was kind of a sign you've made it, or being on the cover of another magazine depicted in a gown or lingerie or feminized in some way. And I just thought, why are we doing this? Why? That has nothing to do with the excellence that got you the opportunity in the first place. And so I got the courage to ask them to do it differently, to not be depicted in that way.
GROSS: And what did you come up with instead?
FLESHMAN: I came up with an ad where I was standing in my running clothes that I train in every day with my arms crossed, looking directly at the camera. And the ad was in the first-person voice. So I was very much in control of how I was being viewed, which added a lot of power to the ad. And it made it a very successful campaign.
GROSS: What was the caption?
FLESHMAN: Objectify me, which was supposed to be, Nike objectifies women, originally. And it was meant to kind of grab your attention and go, what the heck? And then underneath it was the fine print of, we study and - we study the female body so that we can make them the best running shoes. These sex-based differences in the ways we move on average need to be accommodated with footwear that is ideal for them because most footwear is based on a male last. And they just - they say shrink it and pink it to make it a female product.
GROSS: How did that ad campaign do?
FLESHMAN: It did really well. There's still people that work at Nike that have it up in their office that I know. And I get approached by younger people who had the ad in their room in high school that are now in their 20s. And they'll be like, oh, I had your poster on my wall growing up. I think that that kind of defiant stare into the camera of me telling them, go ahead, objectify me but on my terms, I want you to study me to make me the best possible gear was different than what had been seen in sports marketing up until that point.
GROSS: So your contract was - probably had, like, a nondisclosure clause, so let me ask you about other people's contracts (laughter).
GROSS: So in a lot of contracts between athletes and sports brands, in terms of - you know, the endorsement contract, was pregnancy penalized? Like, what would happen to your contract if you became pregnant? By you, I mean women who signed various contracts. What was the standard, if there was one?
FLESHMAN: Pregnancy was not mentioned at all in sports contracts because they were originally designed for male athletes. The legal language was worked out, and then it was copied and pasted and added to female athletes. So there was no mention of it at all, which means there is no protection of it at all. And it was treated like an injury, a significant injury. And if you had an injury that kept you out of racing for - this part could vary by company, but three, six months, then you would be suspended. Your contract could be suspended.
And so the way they would adapt that language for the female body was, well, we'll suspend you for a year and then - without pay. You still have to show up to appearances that we ask you to or being in media stuff, you still need to wear exclusively all of our gear. You can't seek money from any competing company, but we're not paying you money. And then once you compete at your previous level again, you'll get your paycheck back. That was the norm.
GROSS: So you can't get paid by them and you can't get paid by anyone else either, any other sports brand company.
GROSS: Lauren, one more question for you. What's the difference between running now just for, you know, exercise or for pure pleasure or, you know, just to stay in shape versus running when you were a competitive athlete, either in college or as a professional?
FLESHMAN: I'm loving exploring this new way of relating to running in midlife, where it's a thing that I do when I want to do it or with some regularity but without a lot of required discipline and rigor. And I do other types of movement. I bike. I Nordic ski. And so it's just like one of many things that I do, and it's mostly for my mental health and it's mostly for the social aspects, connecting with other people. But I still like to push myself hard every now and then on a trail or even in a race because I like the way being up against the edge of what I can do makes me feel. Not all the time, but sometimes, it's very invigorating. And those years of competitive sport taught me that. I mean, I was drawn to competing for a reason. I liked seeing what I could do. I liked that - those kind of sporadic deep breaths and then the feeling of being done and getting to catch your breath again.
GROSS: Lauren Fleshman, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
FLESHMAN: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Lauren Fleshman's new book is called Good For A Girl: A Woman Running In A Man's World. The series "Fleishman Is In Trouble" is about divorce, middle age and dating apps. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk with the showrunner, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, who also wrote the book it's based on. She's also known for her celebrity profiles in The New York Times. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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