Having the painters in. Being visited by Aunt Flo. The Monthly Visitor. Periods.
Half the population get them. They vary from irritating to excruciating, but they are a regular and essentially unavoidable occurrence in our lives for a solid 40 years (yes, some forms of permanent contraception stop them but for the most part we continue to bleed, just in a more controlled manner).
Yet we almost never talk about them, or at least not explicitly. Supermarket shelves are lined with packets of tampons and pads, quietly hidden away in the sanitary aisle. In amongst all the massive promotions of makeup, hair stuff, skin stuff etc. you’ll never see extra stands at the end of the aisle boldly advertising the discounts available if you stock up on pads right now. Pads are tucked away in the area that everyone knows exists, but no one needs to acknowledge. In fact, based on a quick Google, it is obvious that you should be embarrassed about your visits there. No one should have to know that you’re doing something as disgusting as bleeding naturally. Ew.
When we do talk about periods, it’s almost always with negative associations. Women are being irrational, they’re crazy on their periods, that explains why they’re so angry (Donald Trump’s comments about Megyn Kelly are simply one entry in a long list of this concept). Or women are weak and pathetic about their periods – whether they’re getting stick for just curling up on the sofa with food (carbs, chocolate, and more carbs) or, my least favourite one, being told it’s blowjob week if other stuff is off limits.
When women try to have a reasonable discussion about periods and how they can be made less inconvenient (Tampon Tax is the big one recently), it’s either met with derision or, more often, the complaint that we shouldn’t be talking about it, it’s disgusting. Mostly, though, we don’t talk about it, even with other women; the mentality of public discourse seems to be hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil when it comes to bleeding out of your bits. It’s why we have more than 5,000 euphemisms for periods (favourite: Denmark’s ‘there are communists in the funhouse’).
It’s similarly hush hush in sport too. The Chinese Olympic swimmer, Fu Yuanhui, was praised this summer for frankly saying that she came fourth because she was on her period. Cosmo called her ‘refreshingly honest’, every website and his dog talked about her ‘breaking the taboo’. Paula Radcliffe and former British tennis number one, Annabel Croft, have also spoken out about the so-called ‘last taboo’, but considering almost every female athlete goes through them, periods are pretty rarely talked about. Heather Watson brushed off her exit from the Australian Open in 2015 as ‘girl things’, which everyone knows is code for ‘I was having a really shit period’ but no one wants to say so overtly.
On the non-professional level, I invite you to cast your mind to school PE lessons and how many girls cried ‘period’ as a way to get out of them. Although the majority of the time (probably) this was just a very handy excuse, the fact that it could be legitimate speaks volumes about a) how crap they can be and b) how poorly equipped we, and particularly teenage girls, are to deal with them. Swimming lessons at school were compulsory until we were 14 then they stopped – it was easier not to bother – which was fine for most of us, but for the girls who loved swimming as their main sport it was a hammerblow, essentially telling them they’d grown out of that part of their lives, unless they were prepared to take it seriously and compete with the club. Things that were fun and easy before periods suddenly became much more serious and Grown Up; you were obviously supposed to change everything to fit around this secret double life you led once a month.
Even when we’re a bit more grown up and familiar with our periods, they’re still swept under the surface. I know girls who get up from hit after hit on the rugby pitch, who smash through people twice their size like nobody’s business, and who are reduced to crying in the foetal position by their periods, but they can’t tell the coaches, obviously, because it’s disgusting and private and shouldn’t be publicised. Because we don’t talk about it, because we don’t acknowledge, socially or collectively, the physical impact they have on us, we get zero leeway or assistance beyond tampons that expand sideways as well as lengthways.
All we seem to get pro-periods is the wishy washy statement that ‘exercise makes cramps better’ (yes it does, but when I’m bloated and tired and achy and kind of hating the world I’d much rather hit the sofa with ice cream than put on tight lycra leggings and go for a run), and the inevitable adverts with women wearing white and roller skating. There’s no real action being taken to improve the situation. And with a full quarter of schoolgirls saying they don’t like doing sport because of their period, and the biggest drop of point in girls’ participation in physical activity perfectly coinciding with puberty aka period time, this is a massive bloody problem (pun fully intended).
Companies like Always are blazing a trail with their #LikeAGirl campaign, championing all the things that we can do, and chipping away bit by bit at the stigma casually thrown around in statements like s‘you throw like a girl’. As fantastic as this campaign is (go and watch the videos on YouTube if you have 5 minutes) it can’t tackle the hub of the problem with periods in sport.
A huge part of the stigma and lack of understanding that surrounds periods is how viscerally female they are. Men, by and large, do not bleed out of their vaginas for a week at a time, namely because most of them don’t have vaginas. And when men who’ve never experienced something that can be so utterly debilitating are the ones doing the research and implementing the rules and deciding what female athletes should wear (Tara Moore, British tennis no.5, had nightmares about getting her period clad in the white knickers and skirt required at Wimbledon), it’s no surprise that they just don’t get it. It’s why, in 2016, we still have inane debates with titles like ‘Curse or myth – do periods affect performance?’ as though it’s a ground-breaking discussion when anyone who has had a bad period can tell you, resoundingly, YES.
This is not a rant against male doctors, or men generally (just the arseholes amongst them), but a shout into the dark red void. We need to talk about periods more, and not in the rose-tinted (or should that be blue-tinted?), advert friendly way. We need more sportswomen to admit that their period affects their performance, not as an excuse, but to make it all seem as normal as it is. Using euphemisms and never telling teenage girls that it’s absolutely ok to not want to deal with the world when you’re PMSing means that they’ll continue to avoid sport rather than find that it can help, that they’ll continue to feel dirty and shameful about something natural, and that they’ll continue to endure something crappy that, if it happened to men, would have been sorted out decades ago.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XnzfRqkRxU – if only everyone had a Camp Gyno in their life.