Heather Fisher, 35, is an explosive rugby player, but off the pitch she’s battled anorexia, alopecia and faced serious stigma. Here, she shares her story.
I was just leaving the gym when I first realised my hair was falling out. I was 25 and a month away from my first Rugby World Cup in 2010 and I’d just finished a weight session in Birmingham. It was a sunny day, I had the windows down, and when I ran my right hand through my hair, a few clumps suddenly flew out the window. At that moment, I didn’t think, “Oh shit, my hair is falling out.” In fact, I tried not to think too much about it. But as the days went by, I started losing more and more. Each morning, I’d wake up with hair all over my pillow – it was horrible.
When I arrived at the training camp for the World Cup games, my mate asked if I was alright and then said, “I think you need to shave it off.” I was so scared – I didn’t think it would grow back, but I also wanted to take some control back.
I didn’t set out to be different, but I’ve always felt like I’m different. I got into sport because it was the only place where I could be myself. School always felt very generic, very tick-box, and I wasn’t a generic, tick-box person. My head was never in the classroom – it was always somewhere else. I suppose I’ve never really fitted in. Even now, I struggle. Take this morning’s training session, for instance, when my teammate was coaching us on the field. She said, “Fish, can we just stand on the red cones?” Instead of just standing on them, I moved mine and put the red cones where I wanted them.
Growing up in Birmingham, I found it difficult to make friends. My parents divorced early on in my childhood and I moved schools a lot, which unsettled me. It’s easy to think that children are adaptable and robust, but the divorce really shook me. I felt like I had no sense of belonging and it was hard to build relationships as a result; I think I was always expecting people to leave.
And then I developed severe anorexia in my mid teens. It massively knocked my confidence, alongside my parents’ divorce. Living with an eating disorder is like having someone in your body controlling who you are and how you think about yourself. It’s like you’re in the driving seat of a car and your hands are tied: you know you need help, but you don’t know how to ask for it. It took me a year to realise I needed to talk to someone. I started going to counsellors, nutritionists and doctors every night after school to try and work out why it was happening. Sometimes there isn’t a why: it just is what it is.
Looking back, I think my anorexia was a cry for help. My mum met someone else and it split the family – I didn’t have a father in my life, I lost contact with my brother and my sister. All of a sudden I had a stepdad and I didn’t feel needed any more. I just felt so alone.
It took several years to get out of that hole, but one voice got through to me. My nutritionist said, “Heather, what do you want to be when you’re older?” I replied, “An Olympic athlete.” He then said, “Well, you won’t be an athlete until you start eating.” That kickstarted my recovery – and those words have never left me. Because I was always on a mission to be an Olympian, I didn’t want to be anything else.
Even the mention of the word Olympics sends a shiver down my spine because it represents everything I’ve ever wanted. I used to watch the Games on TV as a young kid and I knew I was capable of competing there one day. And so throwing myself into sport helped with my healing – it gave me a goal and a purpose. That said, I don’t think an eating disorder ever leaves you. It’s always there and something I have to be consciously aware of. I trained myself to remember that I need to eat well and look after myself so I can be the best that I can be.
The impact of hair loss
But nothing could prepare me for the blow of losing my hair. I still don’t know the cause but it’s impacted my identity as a female athlete over the past decade. I’ve always been a big character on the pitch, and many people assume I have the same level of confidence when I’m not playing rugby – but, actually, it’s the opposite. Something like hair loss shouldn’t stop you from “living” – but it does, and I don’t think people realise just how much self-esteem I lost when my hair started falling out.
It took me two years to leave the house without a hat on. I wouldn’t do any interviews for the 2010 World Cup without a bandana on. I always played rugby wearing a scrum hat. The only place I felt comfortable was on the pitch – because I wasn’t there to be looked at, I was there for my performance. It was my safe place, I was accepted and no one asked questions, like whether I was a guy or a girl.
But away from that bubble, it was a totally different story. Very rarely do you see a bald woman on the street. I’ve been kicked out of changing rooms and told I’m in the wrong toilet. In some countries I’ve even had police waiting for me outside the toilets. There are times I’ve literally lifted up my top to show them that I’ve got boobs! When stuff like that started to happen, I used to get really upset. I’d think, “Screw you, you haven’t got a clue!” Other times I’ve been really angry. It made me feel lost, and I just didn’t know how to deal with it.
Even now, I can wake up tearful about it, and I’ll put on a wig because I don’t want anyone to stare at me – it makes me really nervous and shy. I get a lot of, “Are you recovering?” Or, “Is it cancer?” I think the worst part is that I’ve had to dress differently. I’ve tried on dresses before, but because of my muscles and the bald head, I just don’t feel like they suit who I am. I feel really exposed. I feel masculine. People say to me, “Well, you dress masculine,” but, no, I dress to suit my style; I dress to suit what I have. It took me years to make it work with different hats and glasses – they’ve become quite a big thing for me, especially when I lost my eyelashes and my eyes got really sore. I thought, if I can’t change my hair, what else can I do? So I match my socks with my T-shirt and just mix it up, as a way to show my character. But there are still times when I’ll say no to going to a big event because I’m worried about what I will wear or how I look.
I feel like it affects sponsorship deals, too. Look at the covers of most magazines – everyone looks perfect. Well, they’re perceived as perfect. I’ve never seen a muscular person with alopecia on the front page of any magazine.
Although I still struggle with my hair loss, I try my hardest to accept it – and sometimes even embrace it. It’s why I refer to myself as “the bald rugby player” on Instagram. I tell myself: I am bald, I’m proud of the person I am, I’m proud of who I’ve become. I remind myself that alopecia doesn’t define me. Yes, it does affect me – but there’s a difference. And if I’m worried about people staring or saying something hurtful, I try and think, “You know what? I don’t care, it’s their issue – I know who I am.”
Thankfully, sport has given me the confidence to be myself. A big turning point was in 2017 after the Rio Olympics. I felt burnt out, I didn’t want to come back to sport, I was ready to retire – but I got a new coach, James Bailey, and he accepted me for me. I learned that it’s OK to be different.
Having a purpose
Sport has also given me a crucial platform to reach out to others and inspire them. I’m currently studying for a master’s degree in strength and conditioning, so I train a lot of young people and it gives me a chance to pass on my experience as an athlete. I take them all under my wing, I mentor them, and we talk through any issues they might have. I like to think that the gym – when they train with me – is an open and safe space for them too.
To me, this year’s Tokyo Olympics shirt represents everything I’ve gone through. I’m filled with such pride being part of Team GB. It’s not about the medals and the money, it’s about the journey we’ve all been on to get to the Olympics – people who have been really challenged in their lives, and are still being the best version of themselves.
We look to athletes as these supreme people, but actually, we’re only fit for what we do. People don’t always see the mental discipline and resilience it takes to get there. Being a rugby sevens player, it’s quite a speedy game and our training leading into the Olympics has been intense. We call them “death zone” sessions because you literally want to die. We push ourselves to the absolute max where you feel so sick your insides are hurting. You have to keep going even when you feel like you’re wading through treacle. You’ve got to find the mental strength to go: why I am doing this? Why am I here? What’s my purpose? Then I get on with it – because I remember what I’ve been through, I remember my goal and, most importantly, I know this is where I belong.
For support with hair loss, visit alopecia.org.uk; for support with eating disorders, visit beateatingdisorders.org.uk
Heather was a member of England’s 2014 World Cup-winning squad and represented Team GB in rugby sevens at Rio 2016, just missing out on a bronze medal. She has also represented GB in bobsleigh and last year starred in Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins
Image Credit: Getty