Virago Books kindly sent me a copy of this book in return for an honest review in Shiny New Books; as I quite often do, I wanted to share a slightly more personal review, too, so now my review is out on Shiny, here are some more of my thoughts on the book.

Lauren Fleshman – “Good For a Girl: My Life Running in a Man’s World”

(18 January 2023, from the publisher)

Millions of women carry an abundance of positive memories of their time in sport, but they also carry the invisible wounds of their sports experiences. As women, we’ve justified these wounds as normal or internalised the belief that we were to blame. (p. xii)

This is not your ordinary running book. Yes, it includes the story of Lauren’s journey from school athlete through to international competition, but there’s a lot more than that to the book; namely, the damage that the current set-up of competitive athletics in the US, both at school and college level and at professional level, does to young women. I will note that there is a lot about disordered eating and eating disorders in this book that were quite distressing to read about and will be triggering to anyone who has lived with an eating disorder; I am not taking about that much in this review because of the trigger risk for others.

So Fleshman takes us through her experiences through competitive running, but continually relates them to the wider picture as she understands it now. So when she retains her pre-pubescent figure and keeps competitive with the boys, we see how delaying puberty through heavy exercise affects young women’s bone density and other health measures. When girls develop and drop out, we see why this is and how universal it is. When eating disorders or disordered eating become rife, we see an examination of why this happens and the prevalence. When women naturally plateau aged about 19 as their bodies go through further development, we see what happens to their coaching (not good) and how they disappear, discouraged and injured. Then, when she turns professional we see how sponsors make things gendered, how women are penalised if they become pregnant, how women’s sports clothing is much more revealing and tight than men’s for no reason, how catalogues offering women’s apparel include images of models rather than sportswomen.

It’s all pretty damning, and Fleshman has certainly been through the mill. She tries to remain positive, while ending up with stress fractures due to the pressures her body has been under. She fights and fights Nike for women’s equity but is rebuffed, and it’s wonderful when she develops a relationship with the smaller indie brand Oiselle (who I have heard about but not worn), who are actively happy and excited when she reveals she’s planning to have a family. She does real, practical things, becoming a coach herself and sharing honestly on her blog including not-so-perfect images before that was really a thing, and setting up a training diary for young girls that covers all aspects, menstrual health and mental health as well as training sessions.

I made a commitment to grow up and win and fail in public in my little world of running, because I wanted to provide at least one person’s accurate representation of chasing big goals for the next person who searched the internet during a low point. I hoped it would inspire other pro athletes to do the same, and it did. But the biggest winner in the short term was me. The more my life expanded off the track, the more satisfied I was on it. (p. 211)

It’s encouraging to see her activism growing with her community, and her commitment to intersectionality, too: she certainly honours the women from global majority communities who have pushed the agenda with sports sponsors. And at the end of the book she makes a clear call for better support for female athletes including woman-specific training for coaches and qualifications to make sure runners are kept more safe. She’s clear right from the start that this book represents her one voice and that discussion about changing women’s sports must include the voices of global majority people, women with disabilities, trans women and non-binary people (she doesn’t cover issues with the latter much but we can see she is supportive of trans and non-binary rights).  She is honest about her education in social justice around race, finding out how she has white privilege in being allowed to fail more frequently, even while facing sexism, but then still taking time to engage in becoming an “active ally” – and she admits the mistakes she made later in not noticing the overly white advertising of her new sponsor.

The influence of her dad is clear through the book, however hard he was as a father, with alcohol and anger issues, and she’s honest on the ongoing issues she’s had with her sister. Very touching scenes at the end of the book cover his illness and passing. She also talks at the end about the difficulties with her own mental health she had during lockdown and writing the book. The process of applying for colleges and getting professional sponsorship is covered in detail and this can be a little bit bewildering for the British reader, but is perfectly copable-with: all you really have to understand is she had lots of college offers and tried to decide on somewhere that promoted women’s mental health and actively worked against promoting disordered eating. A good, honest and passionate book that offers an interesting track-based and mainly White addition to books such as Alison Mariella Désir’s road-running based “Running While Black” (which she mentions in the resources section).

Thank you to Virago Books for sending me a copy to review honestly on Shiny New Books and here on my personal blog.

A running book with a difference which hopes to make a difference.