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.

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