Heather Fisher: ‘I lost a part of my personality’ – how World Cup-winner dealt with alopecia, body confidence and harassment | Rugby Union News

Sky Sports News spent time 2014 Rugby World Cup-winner Heather Fisher, as she reflected on what it means to be a woman in sport in a world that treats her as a man “five or six times a day,” a year on from her retirement from the sport.

By Miriam Walker-Khan

“This sounds bizarre. I don’t mean it sounds bizarre, but I’m just being honest. I don’t feel like a woman.”

In 2010, Heather Fisher represented England at her first Rugby World Cup. But just before it began, her hair started to fall out and she was diagnosed with alopecia.

“When I lost my hair, I lost a massive part of my personality. A part that I don’t really talk about because I think I should be OK, because I truly believe that hair shouldn’t define me.

“But it does define confidence and how you handle yourself and how you dress. I learnt to dress differently and I learnt to accept that I was looked upon differently. So I’m probably too scared to show how I really feel,” she said.

‘I don’t feel like I should educate people’

Four years after being diagnosed, Fisher was part of the England squad that won the 2014 Rugby World Cup. But she says her alopecia is something she still struggles with every day.

“From comments, to looks, to the way I’m treated. I forget that I’ve got the condition. But I’m constantly reminded because of other people.”

2014 World Cup-winner Fisher says her alopecia is something she still struggles with every day

Fisher says she gets called “a bloke” five or six times a day.

“Maybe I should fight it more, but I don’t want it to consume me so I just put up with it and accept the fact that someone thinks I’m a guy because I can’t be bothered to explain I’m female.

“Maybe I have got a role to educate people. But I also don’t feel like I should educate people, I feel like they shouldn’t be so ignorant.”

But it isn’t just the odd comment. Fisher has been asked to leave women’s toilets, locked inside toilets with police waiting outside, and was once physically pushed out of a toilet cubicle.

And when so many of these experiences have happened during training camps or while travelling to compete, how does an elite athlete cope with the stress of it, while also focusing on their sporting performance?

“[I] laughed it off initially. I’ve laughed it off so much that I think people think I’m OK with it. And that’s my coping mechanism,” she said.

“When I lost my hair, I didn’t really go out. I thought it was disgusting. When you think you’re disgusting and you don’t deserve to be in a relationship and you don’t fit in, then you kind of hold back. And how you get treated, that doesn’t really ever leave you.

“It hasn’t always been OK. And I think that’s why since retiring, I’m now starting to process it. Imagine a library of files behind you. Now I’m retired, I’ve got the head space to go through the files.”

Fisher says she has experienced transphobia and insists sport is for everyone

Body image: ‘What should be right, versus me’

Fisher says losing her hair meant she had to quickly work out what she stood for and what her values were.

“I don’t set out to be different, but when you lose your hair, to be a strong woman, it takes a lot of courage. I think I’m constantly fighting between what should be right versus me. I hold it together because I feel I should hold it together.

“People say to have muscles as a female is wrong. I haven’t grown up thinking I’m a woman who’s going to get muscles and go and play a male-dominated sport, right? I’ve just been a young girl who’s found a sport that she loves, trained for it, got muscles and became the best that I could be.

“I’m not defined by the lack of hair or my muscles or by my outfits of choice. In a male-dominated environment like rugby, it brings out the other side of you, you have to be pretty courageous to be in that set-up. If a woman is masculine, I think it is still deemed as wrong and not really accepted yet.”

‘Sport is for everyone’

Although Fisher isn’t trans, she has experienced transphobia, and says she understands what it’s like to feel like you’re fighting just to be yourself.

“I’m always having to define who I am – every day. That’s such a heavy weight. It’s like it weighs you down to a point where you feel like it consumes you. And there’s no way that I should be fighting to just be who I am.

“And we shouldn’t be having young people grow up in a world where they’re having to define or argue who they want to be or who they are. Young people are starting to decide who they want to be and I say who because it’s not about what, it’s who, and that comes down to their identity and their values,” Fisher said.

There are ongoing debates around how transgender people can compete in sport.

In February 2023, UK Athletics announced they wanted a change in legislation to ensure the women’s category of the sport was reserved for competitors who are recorded as female at birth.

Its chairman Ian Beattie said the governing body wanted athletics to be a “welcoming environment for all”, but that it had responsibility to “ensure fairness” in women’s competition.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said it was “disappointed” UKA chose to publicise “inaccurate advice” and questioned its interpretation of the Equality Act 2010. The say sporting organisations have an exemption to discriminate on grounds of sex in a “gender-affected activity” and discriminate on grounds of gender reassignment where necessary to secure “fair competition” or “the safety of competitors”.

“Any young person going into sport should never be defined by gender. For a young person they probably don’t feel like they can step into a sport because of what they’re going mentally through,” said Fisher. “But sport knows no gender, it’s just sport and it’s competition, it’s competing, it’s meeting new people, it’s meeting friends, it’s your identity, it becomes your culture, it becomes your life,” Fisher said.

“It’s how you make it equal. It’s just working out the physical aspects of it in terms of strength and hormones. So you make it equal across countries.

“We’ve got to grow with it, we’ve got to evolve and I think until the sporting governing bodies start to evolve, I don’t think it’ll be a safe place for young people. I think we need to get better at inclusion and including young people in a safe space that they feel they can truly be themselves and play the game. Full stop.”

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