The Taboo of Menstruation in Sports

heather-watson-featureBritish tennis player, Heather Watson, started what some regard as a most welcome conversation by admitting that she wasn’t at the top of her game at the Australian Open because of “girl things.” She said:

‘It just was one of those days for me. I felt very light-headed and low on energy – you know it’s a shame that it’s today. With the way I as feeling… um it didn’t do me any favours today … the last couple days I felt fine. I think it’s just one of these things that I have, girl things. It just , yeah, happens.”

More than one headline has said that in alluding to her period, she broke a major taboo in sports.  The CBC’s The Current says: “Heather Watson breaks period taboo at the Australian Open” and The Huffington Post headline is: “How Tennis Player Heather Watson Confronted the Taboo of Menstruation in Sports.” The Guardian story is titled, “Menstruation: The last great sporting taboo” and, in a further piece, asks, “If men menstruated would periods still be taboo?”

In that article, the author writes:

What a relief it is to be able to say “period” out loud in public, without everyone running queasily for the hills. Thank you, Heather Watson, for telling the world that menstruation messed up your tennis-playing. A breakthrough. Well, it is for my generation, which never dared mention periods, tampons, sanitary towels, tummy aches and spare knickers to anyone (except the swimming teacher). We didn’t even know what PMT was.

Those were tough times. We had to be fairly stoical and keep it all a secret. Not easy, what with all the leaks, belts, nappies, stench and pain. I once had a seven-week-long period about two decades ago and thought I might bleed to death. Imagine keeping that quiet. I couldn’t, so I wrote about it in this newspaper, initially pretending it wasn’t me, because of the shame. Then I owned up, and so did many brave readers. But that was the Women’s page, not the wider world.

I’ve blogged before about menstruation and yoga, in the post “Yoga’s Red Tent.” Now, maybe yoga isn’t what we’d call a sport, but one positive thing about the menstrual practice is that it at least acknowledges that sometimes menstruating women don’t feel 100%.

When people applaud Heather Watson for her comments — even Martina Navratilova expressed support — they are acknowledging that a badly timed period can indeed have a negative impact on a woman’s athletic performance. As Navratilova says:

“It sounds like an excuse but for women it is reality,” said Navratilova, who recently joined the growing ranks of superstar tennis coaches in a partnership with world No. 6 Agnieszka Radwanska. “For me I didn’t even like to drive before I got my period, that’s how out of it I was. So it certainly affected me on the tennis court. There were a few matches that I wish would have been played about three days earlier or three days later.

I’ve known women who were positively sidelined by their periods, spending at least a day or two crampy and achey and tired–hardly in any shape to perform their athletic best.

But it’s not the same for everyone. When I was in my twenties and thirties, I used to feel worst for a few days before my period. That’s when my legs felt like they were filled with lead and I could sleep for hours in the middle of the day. But when my period finally arrived I felt a surge of energy. It was like a big relief.

For me, that all started to change during peri-menopause, when I finally learned what it was like to have cramps and lower back pain.

These are realities for some women, and while every athlete has an off day from time to time, for women athletes who do suffer prior to and/or during their periods, it can be a thing of dread.  You can track all you want, but the fact is that for many, it’s difficult to predict exactly when you’re going to get it.

Navratilova talks about having had to spend a day in bed between the Wimbledon semi-final and final in 1978:

“In my first Wimbledon [title, in 1978], I played Evonne Goolagong Cawley in the semi-finals. I got my period the next day, I stayed in bed all day. I didn’t go practice. I beat Chris [Evert] in the final, but I was lucky that it came that day. If the final came the day before I would have lost the match, because I was in bed. Now you have ibuprofen that helps it, so that at least you’re not in pain, but the head is still … there’s no drug for the head.”

It’s great that women can talk openly about menstruation. But I think there’s a potentially sinister twisting of the message that we need to watch for.  I worry that this openness will be used against us.  It could be cited as confirming why women just aren’t as good as or as consistent as men at sports — men don’t menstruate.

Despite that it’s true that for some women, some of the time, a nasty period arriving at the wrong time can temporarily set them back, there are lots of women for whom menstruation isn’t much more than an inconvenience. Indeed, there are even those, like I used to in my twenties, who welcomed the influx of energy that came with it.

And while it’s great to be able to talk openly about something that affects so many women — sort of how I felt about that locker room conversation about hot flashes and night sweats the other day — we also want to be careful with arguments that suggest that biology-is-destiny. It makes me think of the way girls used to be forced to sit out gym class because of their periods.

So I’m cautious. I think this all speaks to the double bind that as women, we often find ourselves in. It’s great to be open about things that affect us, but it’s also then used against us, dismissed as an excuse, and becomes a source of generalization about the way “all” women “get” when they’re menstruating.

On balance, it’s a good thing to be open about the facts: lots of women, even athletes, menstruate.  And for some, it’s not a happy time (hence, one of the euphemisms for it is “the curse.”). I’ll end with this rant about why tampons are taxed as luxury items in the UK:

Who decides on these mad taxes? I suspect it’s men. Not that I have anything against men. Some of my best friends are men, but men have never had periods. They’ve never been called unclean and sent to huts and baths outside their homes and villages, away from kitchens, in case they turned the bacon rancid, tainted their spouses, repelled fish and game, polluted the air and young hunters, affected the weather negatively with their gaze, bled uncontrollably, stank and became wild and dangerous. They’ve never had horrid bloating and dragging tummy aches, bloody knickers, sheets and even mattresses, spent hours washing everything, lying bleeding and clutching hot-water bottles. Because if they had, they’d know that having a convenient way of containing and mopping it all up is a necessity, not a luxury.

Now that last bit may not be everyone’s experience. But you can see how it would be tough to play your best tennis under those circumstances, and it would also be tough to speak up about it, given the taboo, stigma, and stereotyping that goes on around menstruation and menstruating women.

10 thoughts on “The Taboo of Menstruation in Sports

  1. Thank you for this. My relationship to my period and activity has been convoluted too. In my early teens I was on prescription medication for the inflammation and really couldn’t do much for a couple days at a time. In my twenties I’d often forget I was on my period, a total non-issue.It being all over the place at 40. Some months it’s all I can do to get through my day with the cramps and nightsweats and fatigue. Other months it’s like, meh, whatever.
    But I cringe when I think back to college, when the men I went to class with would yell “WHAAA my box hurts!” to me and my female classmates whenever we had a complaint about sexism in engineering, or really had anything negative to say at all. But I think we need to keep talking, and share many stories, to nip that crap in the bud.

    thanks again, I loved reading this.

  2. I agree that open discussion about menstruation and sports can be useful..for women to help one another keep at their sport and enjoying it.

    But yes, it could be used against us to exclude us, brand us as less competitive, less hard-working. .

    On women’s cycling forums, it is discussed in the line of helping one another and finding “solutions”/expressing abnormalities. Such as cycle touring long distances….on the prairies. And there’s no bush or tree in sight….

    Maybe it’s just better to do a long hard day’s ride of 100-160 km. and at the end, gently mention to the guys: “Sorry, I have my period. Can I use the washroom/portaloo first?” 🙂 Or seeing bleeding cyclists in crashes: “Ah come on! Do you menstruate?”

    Just being cheeky, but real.

  3. I think we need to have conversations, generally speaking, about reproductive cycles and athletics. I learned, from conversations with fellow runners, about the Diva Cup. That’s been a game-changer for me when it comes to running or cross training during my period. I also breastfed my daughter for 2.5 years and struggled to find resources on marathon training while nursing a toddler. There are so many opportunities to remove the stigma of these very essential experiences that make us women!

    1. What a great comment. You’re so right about how we learn from one another. And I have to say, breastfeeding, not menstruation, has more claim to be the last taboo! I have never heard anyone talk about the challenges of nursing while training for endurance events. Did you find anything? Thanks for your comment.

  4. Well the thing is that those pains that half of females are experiencing are not quite normal,is a slight hormonal imbalance before the bleeding.After I balanced my hormones the pains are gone…

  5. Thanks for this post, I always felt so abnormal because I struggled with my period during my late 30s and early 40s. I was in the best, athletic shape of my life and otherwise very healthy yet every month I had two days when I felt awful.
    My periods could derail my training. Whenever I trained for a half marathon, I always had to take into consideration what day my long runs fell into my cycle.

  6. Thanks for sharing this! period talk felt so taboo in high school. Not so much with field hockey because we had a female coach but in swimming &track where there were all male coaches. it’s hard explaining that you feel like your guts in a knot & you don’t not feel like you can give 100%

  7. “The curse” is one of my least favorite euphemisms for menstruation because of the way it gets used to dismiss women’s real pain and deny them treatment. In the bible, after the incident in the Garden of Eden, God curses Eve, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing, with pain you will give birth to children.” So when girls tell their mothers about the awful pain around their periods, Mom says “It’s our curse, because Eve ate the apple.” (Or at least, that’s what my mom said.) Now I know I have endometriosis, and if my pain hadn’t been invalidated for years, I could’ve started treatment sooner and find relief. Sorry, rant…

  8. This was a great post! I have been going through a weird time in my life in regards to getting a “regular” menstrual cycle and there have been days where I could just manage to sit on the couch all day. Then, I have had ones where I can go out and run and do yoga and just be at the top of my game. I don’t think it’s just a matter of differences from one woman to another, but even differences within the same woman. I don’t think that admitting you’re having your period or that it’s a particularly bad one should ever come across as weak. Would we look at a man who has the flu as a weak competitor? No, just a temporary situation with which he is dealing at the time.

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