Ireland and Harlequins prop Leah Lyons: 'I wanted to raise awareness about body shaming'
Leah Lyons could not sleep. Her mind was racing. Despite Ireland having put in a strong home performance to beat Wales in the Women’s Six Nations last February, the prop was upset and agitated.
On the drive back from Dublin to the Lyons family home in Ballyhooly, a village in rural County Cork, her parents Michael and Nadine had told their daughter that they had overhead a fan using derogatory language about her appearance, including the word ‘heifer’.
Lyons, now 23, is softly spoken and describes herself as a “relaxed” character, but as she lay tossing and turning in bed that night, this was one slur she was finding impossible to let go. Finally, she came to a resolution: as a female athlete, she had to speak out.
“There are young girls watching this sport so I think I have to make everyone aware that, yes, I know I am big, I can’t hide that, I am on TV, but I am still playing my matches and I am doing what I love doing,” she says.
“I am in a position now where people see me. We are on television, people know who we are as a team and I can’t hide away from that. I wanted to raise awareness about body shaming because there might be a girl somewhere thinking, ‘s---, I am big, I feel like I am not good at anything.’ That girl probably feels that people see her that way but I am like, ‘No, there is something for everyone.’
So after a great win yesterday, this was relayed to me.. ain’t got nothing good to say, say nothing at all #womensrugby #6nations #sillyman #notcool #IREvWAL #wrugby #thinkbeforeyouspeak pic.twitter.com/9Zg6fUMCeZ— Leah Lyons (@LEAH__LYONZ) February 26, 2018
“That night I was thinking about it a lot and how it wasn’t right. I am quite quiet and I probably wouldn’t usually say something. But this is something that affects people: it is not singling one person out, it is singling a lot of people out.”
Showing the same kind of steel that has seen her win nine Test caps, Lyons took to Twitter to issue her response. She wrote: “Poor choice of wording from a man in the crowd (Irish) yesterday… ‘Heifer’ in relating [sic] to myself… You were seated three rows away from my family who heard you and surrounded by young children, girls and boys who are all shapes and sizes.
“Rugby is a game for all! No one is perfect, I realise I’m an example of that, but have a bit of respect! Good to hear that someone in the crowd told you to be quiet!”
It was an example of social media acting as a force for good as Lyons gained unequivocal support and the post went viral. “I had people messaging me thanking me as their daughter or son had had similar experiences,” she says.
Lyon's motivation to speak up was deeply personal. She has painful memories of her teenage years where school became a struggle, her body type not conforming to the expectations set out by her peers.
“Growing up, I would have struggled around my body image. I went to an all-girls school, and if you don’t fit in, it isn’t the easiest place to be. I hated school because I wasn’t very academic, I didn’t feel like I fitted in."
Rugby provided a sanctuary from her insecurities. “I just wanted to be out kicking a ball. It is quite hard because growing up when you feel your look doesn’t fit in, it is hard, so rugby became my way of dealing with it.”
It has been to the sport's benefit, as well as her own. Lyons - who has a Canadian mother, English father and Argentine maternal grandmother - is now part of Harlequins' Premier XVs squad and is already embarking on a coaching career.
On Saturday, she will step out at Twickenham to face England - less than an hour after Eddie Jones' men have tussled with the Wallabies - and find herself face-to-face with England's Vickii Cornborough, her Harlequins team-mate. She is already looking forward to “having a go at her.”
In truth, Ireland are clear underdogs. Despite having won the Grand Slam in 2013 and the Six Nations in 2015, Ireland’s women do not have the same winning structures as their male counterparts, with provinces such as Lyons’ native Munster only playing the other three provinces in a short inter-provincial tournament once a year. The club game is also underfunded, hence why the Premier 15s is such an attractive proposition.
Of the Premiership clubs, Harlequins have led the way in terms of aligning their men’s and women’s sides, with Lyons able to benefit from the same gym and analysis systems as the male professionals.
“It is crazy different over here, it is so professional. At the club, everything is at your fingertips – if you want video analysis that is there for you, the physio is there for you,” she says.
Lyons has never played at Twickenham before - "I pass by it all the time but I have never been in it,” she says - but her past experiences will only make her stand prouder than ever when the first whistle blasts.
“I am sorry I can’t fit into your thing of how you think I should look," she says. "But I am trying to be the best I can be to represent my country and to do the best I can for myself and for Ireland.”