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'It was never about me': Naoupu dedicated to promoting positive body image in tandem with sport

The Ireland centre last year spoke about her battle with anorexia, and is eager to help young women steer clear of the pitfalls.

SENE NAOUPU WANTS to help.

The brilliant Ireland centre has felt her role change over the decade since first moving to Ireland.

It’s about far more than a switch from Galwegians to Old Belvedere, whose kit she wears in the promotional image accompanying this interview.

She is seated and overlooking Energia Park to promote the company’s new naming rights deal of the All-Ireland League, which ran without a flagship sponsor last season, and there is genuine excitement running through her typically hushed Kiwi accent.

Because Naoupu is deeply passionate about women’s sport, and women’s sport needs investment of all sorts of resources.

Sene Naoupu and Lydia Thompson Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The Sevens and 15-a-side international devotes many hours to the top-end organisational and administrative element of her sport, she has also moved to dig deep for a core issue that impacts over 1,700 new sufferers each year in Ireland.

Last year, Naoupu pulled back the curtain on an element of her road to international rugby that had been hidden away from view. 

With a small collage of photos — one side painful, one side fulfilled. One side a girl who appeared a mere shadow of the woman at the peak of her powers on the other — she landed massive heartfelt blow.

“After being diagnosed with an eating disorder and depression in my early 20s,” read Naoupu’s caption on Instagram. “When my desire to be, do and have more in the world outweighed my desire to remain an unnatural, unhealthy silhouette with no energy or lust for life to express my true self and have any form of influence in the world.”

Naoupu’s experience of anorexia is, of course, far from a unique one. And that is precisely why she decided to put her story out for all to see, following up her striking post with a candid chat on RTE ahead of the Six Nations.

Having so clearly moved beyond the struggle to become a powerful athletic centre with a terrific skillset, it took no little bravery for Naoupu to dig up an old emotional wound. But this is a woman acutely aware of how her place on an elite sporting pedestal can be used to broadcast a positive message.

“The intention was to help others. It was never about me,” says the Dunedin -born Ireland star, “looking after our mental health, that was a big cue for me to say: ‘hell yes, I need to make sure people are aware of this’.

“Young girls in particular,” she adds in the knowledge that 89% of eating disorder admissions are female, “with the accessibility of social media and girls being exposed to all these different types of images of females, I thought it was just a really important time to remind young girls to look after their mental health, body image and to accept who they are as opposed to wanting to look like something they are constantly exposed to on their phones.

“That can affect their interest and ability to participate in sport.

Sometimes there’s that stereotype or stigma when you’re a young girl: if you’re going to play sport, you’re going to end up being a certain body image. And you don’t want to necessarily be like that.

“I know what it’s like; growing up and being in two minds whether to play sport or not.

“The benefits sport has given me far outweigh anything else.That’s where my passion lies in terms of encouraging young girls and women to be active and involved in sport. Not to be scared of it.”

Before recounting her tale in the hope of striking a chord in others, Naoupu took up a place as trustee on the board of eating disorder charity BodyWhys. Her own turning point towards recovery happened because of family through the birth of her niece. But the formal support structures are invaluable.

Why I wanted to serve was to raise awareness, make sure girls knew the service was available. It was really important for me to share the story and the experience I went through. It’s important to share the fact that it’s okay to be vulnerable and ask for help.

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“At the time [I had the eating disorder], I had a similar service myself. I was just really lucky that I had a strong family network and support around me. 

“I was really surprised at the messages,” the rugby star says of the feedback sent her way since October, “the awareness was raised, it was positive that parents are reaching out and young girls are reaching out, realising that they can get through certain things.”

Now 35, Naoupu’s activism and advocacy approach is a holistic one. Among her recent business interests was SportsGaff, which aims to bring coaching support to grassroots women’s teams up and down the country. Coaching the coaches to make sure sport is kept as an enjoyable thing for people to spend their time on.

She uses her voice not only to reach young women on mental health subjects, but also to speak for her peers on the Rugby Athletes Commission, International Rugby Players’ Council and she is the Rugby Europe representative on the Olympic Committee.

Wearing all of those hats at once, the centre inevitably deftly side-stepped questions over Ireland’s absence from the Test arena this summer while England, New Zealand, Canada, France and the USA played out a mini-tournament (admittedly with its own set of issues) in San Diego. However, she agrees there is ample room for matches to be played by more than just the top tier. 

After all, if only the top nations play, how can the rest catch up?

Sene Naoupu Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“It’s about sustainability, isn’t it? Inclusivity with other nations and ensure that everyone has the chance to get up into that top tier.

“In terms of emerging nations, that’s a work in progress. Certainly, in the future, there’s an opportunity there for the global calendar to grow and to expand.

“In some ways it’s an exciting time and it’s also an exciting time, even here today to launch a particular partnership with an incredible company like Energia with our domestic competitions. Because it means that there are commercial programmes underpinning domestic competition for the women’s game, not just the men’s.

So that’s a positive sign in those sorts of milestones across different unions who haven’t necessarily had that particular opportunity. It’s a stepping stone towards the right direction.”

Naoupu notes that the top European sides at least have the Six Nations, while the southern hemisphere calendar is still loose. It has just been a shame that the tournament was a tough slog for Ireland this year, with losses to all bar Scotland.

“The talent is absolutely there. It’s a real game of inches. There’s certain opportunities in games this season where we could have won the moment. Those one-per-cents.”

It seems churlish to sweat over match results when considering Naoupu’s other passions.

In any walk of life, even small changes and improvements can make a world of difference.

The Bodywhys helpline can be reached at 1890 200 444, and support and a listening ear can be accessed via alex@bodywhys.ie.

About the author:

Sean Farrell

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