Why do we struggle to talk about menstruation?

Many of us still struggle to talk about menstruation and when it is discussed in the media, there is often a hostile response from men and women who clearly find the topic uncomfortable. However when this results in discrimination and additional pressures on girls and women in developing countries and war zones where their access to sanitary protection and toilet facilities is limited, women and men in the west have a duty to speak out. 

When Heather Watson crashed out of the Australian Open she coyly alluded to the reason why her game was sub-par, ““I think it’s just one of these things that I have, girl things” breaking what many commentators describe as a taboo in sport- the discussion of how the menstrual cycle may or may not affect performance and resulting in a few press articles.

White running shorts and periods...a no no?
White running shorts….

Is there a taboo about discussing it in real life or is it a case that the real life situation isn’t reflected in the media coverage and if this is the case, then whose ‘fault’ might that be? The British hockey player Hannah McLeod, in an interview with the Guardian where she talks about her own team-mates attitudes, claims that “we talk about it all the time…it comes up very frequently” then elaborates further, stating that on day one of their period, each member of the squad has to email their strength and conditioning coach, Ben Rosenblatt.

It is refreshing to learn that Rosenblatt creates training programmes that reflect the menstrual status of each hockey player in McLeods team but research into the effects of menstruation and the cycle itself on performance offers inconclusive and variable results. The Melbourne-based sports physician and Chief Medical Officer for Netball Australia, Dr Susan White stated:

“World’s best performances have been recorded at all stages of the menstrual cycle, including the pre-menstrual and menstrual phases.” She added, “There is one study in Italy that indicates female soccer players may have a greater injury risk before and during their menstrual periods. It is unclear whether it was because of physiological or psychological factors or a combination of them. There are no other studies at this stage that support this research.”

New research in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (2011), investigated the effects of the menstrual cycle phase using eleven rowers, concluding that not only was their endurance performance not influenced by a normal menstrual cycle, their energy expenditure, oxygenation and heart rate were also not significantly different during the menstrual cycle phases.

These studies are focusing upon ‘normal’ menstrual cycles though and are not concerned with the psychological and social impact of menstruation either. It is fair to assume that elite sportswomen pay as much attention to the fine tuning of their reproductive health as they do to all physiological functioning and it is also reasonable to assume that the assessment and evaluation of their cycles would be a normal and unremarkable aspect of their lives. The pitfalls of menstruation and any inhibition about discussing it must surely lie with the school playing fields, the changing rooms and everyday sporting lives of women at non-elite level. There is also the wider implications for women performing in any work place and public sphere where scrutiny is high and easy management of it is limited or complicated, What do women in the forces, women who live and work in poorer nations or isolated parts of the world (Antarctica) and beyond (the space station) do?

"Houston we have a problem. I've just come on"
“Houston we have a problem. I’ve just come on”

Remember those days of coyly approaching the (often male) PE teacher before swimming or cross country to tell him that it was ‘that time’ and therefore you might need to be excused ot have close access to a toilet? Remember the anxieties of using sanitary protection under skimpy and stretchy gym-knickers, leotards and skirts if you were yet to graduate to tampons? Remember the fear of accidents when wearing tennis whites? British tennis No5  Tara Moore does, and has spoken out about the nightmares she has about getting her period during Wimbledon, not just because it might affect performance, but add in the horror of white skirts, blood and the banks of press photographers there to capture the moment. Moore is not the only woman engaged in an open dialogue about menstruation and leakage. Check out the instagram feed of Mayan Toledano ( @thisismayan) for the image, below, which caused many complaints- that of a woman wearing underwear stained with blood. Mayan owns a company that makes underwear and clothing with a strong feminist ethos.

Image by Mayan Toledano of @its_meandyou / http://www.itsmeandyou.com

It is hard to unselfconsciously tumble across a gym-mat or upside down on a trampoline when you fear all eyes are on your crotch. Girls and women who suffer from excessive bleeding, severe pain or unpredicable cycles face even more problems and when you remember that the menstrual cycle can take a few years to regulate itself in a young girl, we can see that the problem is not a rare one, and something that teachers or care givers would encounter frequently. So what is the impact on ‘ordinary females?’

Researching this article and soliciting requests for comments led to multiple requests to use ‘first name only,’ especially from younger women. Many said they had no problems asking fathers, brothers and boyfriends to buy sanitary protection for them, they also had no problems letting the males in their life know they were having a period. But they all baulked at being identified in this piece. As Emily (19) who is a keen runner, said,

“I don’t think I am ashamed of having periods but it is embarrassing and I don’t want to become the local poster girl for it.”

I spoke to girls competing at county and regional level in gymnastics, ballet, boxing and contact sports, horseriding and long distance running and while all of them applauded Heather Watson,

she has opened the door to a more realistic conversation about how women manage when they work or compete at a high level or in difficult conditions” (Sarah, dancer in her late twenties),

they were reluctant to identify themselves. As Louise explained,

“I am happy for my boxing trainer to know that my abdomen is tender and bloated and ‘yes I do need a toilet break every twenty minutes because my stomach is upset’ but I don’t necessarily want the whole world to know that, let alone my opponent.

Sarah spoke of the proximity of ballet and dance, of being lifted by her male dance partner who has “his hands in my armpits, my crotch, between my legs (during lifts). Your partner odten touches your stomach and because we are so attuned to each others bodies and how they move and perform, they can feel when I have pre menstrual bloating.” She laughs and agrees at the suggestion that they are more in tune with her physiology than her husband:

“I am not embarrassed about that but…the audience, the stage hands seeing any leaks..then I have seconds to change a tampon in some of the more demanding ballets when I am rarely off stage. I’ll let you imagine what dancers end up having to do and those costumes, the classical ones and all in one body leotards do NOT come off easily or swiftly.”

Sarah is keen to get the point across that dancers tend to be very earthy about their bodies,“they are tools” but despite this, she still feels anxiety about her ‘tool’ letting her down and bleeding visibly in public.

Interestingly, discussion around the management of menstruation pointed out issues with the rules on the use of medication and herbal aids which means that many painkillers and drugs that affect prostglandins (a useful way of reducing cramps) may not be part of the box of tricks available to them. As Emma said, 

“The drugs that work best on pain and stomach cramps make me woozy and disinclined to get off the sofa. And the nature of my sport (roller derby) means that I compete all the time so taking the pill to postpone or stop my periods would mean I’d probably never be able to have one. Which makes me worry because I think it is healthy to have periods ” Her conclusion?  “I am left having to manage it and hoping that the world won’t stop turning if I accidentally leak because things are at the heavy stage- I think I’d take a few weeks to feel I could show my face in public again if that happened and that there’s always the risk that I’ll be all over the internet, being laughed at.”

Emma echoes a lot of women in her belief that it is not ideal to prevent menstrual periods over long stretches of times. A period offers a woman a mini health-status report every month. Regular menstruation that is not overly painful or troublesome tells us that our system is balanced, that we are neither too underweight or overweight. It is a good indicator that we are not becoming overly stressed, that we are not pregnant, that our uterus can prepare for implantation and that we are not yet approaching menopause (important to know if you are planning a family in the future). Take them away and despite their nuisance value, we might feel something is amiss.

Those white shorts again.
Those white shorts again.

The euphemisms about menstruation don’t help an open and frank discussion though. Girl thing, time of the month, Aunt Flo, getting the painters in, wading through the Red Sea; they are many and varied. Same for assumptions, sterotypes and misapprehensions about the physiology of the menstrual cycle and its effects, some of which were mentioned by other elite sportswomen in their reactions to Heather Watson’s statement. Here’s former tennis player Annabel Croft: “It was quite sweet, the way Heather said it…you are quite emotional at that time.” Not all women experience heightened emotions during menstruation and her words had that weird undercurrent of unintended infantilism and internalised stereotypes common to the way the behaviour of menstruating women is depicted. Hence the scene in 30 Rock which saw Amelia Earharts disappearance whilst attempting to fly across the Pacific being blamed upon the unexpected arrival of her period. Go down that road and you arrive at the ‘menstruating women are unpredictable and unreliable’ belief that keeps us out of the boardroom and the sporting field.

Many religions and cultures codify elaborate rituals and rules about how a woman must behave during her menstrual period. For Orthodox Jews, the Old Testament stipulates a woman is unclean during menstruation but the Talmud goes further, stating that her period of uncleanness lasts for an additional week after menstruation has ended.

“And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” Leviticus 15:19 (KJV)

Niddah is the word used to denote the menstruating woman and her period of uncleanness which defiles everyone and everything she touches. She may not have sexual intercourse with her husband either. His existence is the perfect state, the default setting for cleanliness and a woman risks contaminating that. Only the ritual bath (“mitweh”) at the end of the period can render her fit to return to family participation.

Islam emphasises the normality of menstruation whilst regarding its blood as unclean (najis) although this inpurity should not prevent the woman from leading a ‘normal’ family life. However entry to the mosque and touching the writings of the Qur’an, the names and attributes of Allah, the names of the Prophet, the Imams and Fatimah (the daughter of the Prophet) are forbidden. The Qu’uran has this to say about sex during menstruation:

They ask you about menstruation. (O Muhammad) tell (them that) menstruation is a discomfort (for the women, it is a period when they pass through physical and emotional tension. Therefore,) do not establish sexual rela­tions with them during the menses, and (again you are remind­ed that) do not approach them (sexually) until the blood stops.”

In Uganda and Nepal, teams of people are tackling the challenges menstruation has for local girls, both as a taboo and the resulting issues of hygiene and social exclusion which sees school attendance plummit. The cultural tradition of Chhaupadi in Nepal, believes menstruation to be polluting and harmful to others, meaning females must remain isolated, abstaining from contact with other people, often in what are called ‘menstrual huts’ with their attendant poor hygiene, risk of disease and horrendous stigma. In Uganda, many menstruating girls are prevented from cooking food and banned from carrying newborn children. Girls in Uganda face less social restriction during their periods, but for them the fear of the consequences of inadequate sanitary protection means they avoid school and social activities. Teasing from peers and even teachers is a common occurrence.

The same problem has been reported in other African countries and across India too where school attendance past the menarche drops off drastically in poorer, more rural communities. UNICEF reports that “in countries where menstrual hygiene is taboo, girls in puberty are typically absent for 20% of the school year,” with many girls dropping out at around 11 to 12-years-old. They may also miss school because they are not educated about their periods, and neither is the school which thus fails to provide secure, discreet and clean toilet facilities for them.

The word ‘blessing’ is derived from the Old English for ‘bleeding’ and indeed the menses were once regarded as a sacred mysterious event being as they were then, unexplained, linked to the even more mysterious moon and part of a cycle of fertility that begat life. In the Americas, some Native American tribes celebrate and revere them- Apache tradition calls girls at menarche “Changing Women”, and later on, “White Painted Women” whlst Navajo girls run towards the rising sun. However the Sundance ceremony sees menstruating women segregated to their own dancing area so as to act as counter balance to the energy flow of the main dance.

Some women are reclaiming this worshipful attitude yet I am extremely wary of what I call the ‘woo’ side of menstruation activism: all that Mother Earth and menstrual goddess rhetoric; the worshipping of the menarche as a sacred rite of passage, elevating its status as culmination of the fertility cycle and the sole ability of the female to bring forth a new life tend to leave me cold. Yes, when you consider the odds, the fact that women get pregnant at all can be awe inspiring (so many ‘if’s and variables) but the whole of our fertility has an easy biological explanation; our uteri are not ‘mysterious.’

Elevating the status of menstruation is one end of a spectrum that sees the less celebratory rituals that isolate and shame women at its opposite end. They take what is actually a biologically practical solution to a product we no longer need-the spongy endometrial build up- and imbue it with a spiritual ‘woo’ side that cloaks it in layers of ritual and cultural rules, albeit women friendly ones. Seeking to make the explainable more mysterious in order to reclaim it from misogyny and misunderstanding is not the way to break away from taboo as it risks alienating women who wish to shrug off their embarrassment but who do not want to publicly discourse about the nature of their menstrual blood or celebrate something which can be significantly physically debilitating. No matter how positively you embrace or re-frame menstruation, it is often inconvenient, physically uncomfortable for many and downright painful for some. There are women (and men) who want to tackle the taboo of menstrual talk without attaching any special spiritual significance to it.

Reclaiming the celebratory ‘woo’ side will, I fear, allow men to cop out of trying to understand (‘womens stuff’) and also encourages the idea that hormones and periods cause us to become unpredictable, mysterious and capricious. I do not wish to give the impression that I rise with my red hair and eat men like air at certain times of the month. Nor do I wish to be defined as a woman who is prone to eating loads of chocolate, throwing tantrums or requiring special treatment because I am some kind of menstruating goddess creature. More seriously, imbuing menstruation with a spiritual and celebratory aspect is not very different to those menstrual huts and ritual baths which after all, are the sum total of men and women trying to explain and then contain what is/was to them, the mysterious and the indefinable.

What we do need however, is greater equality in sports commentary, reporting and representation. We will not get a practical and objective evaluation of the ways in which a womans fitness and sporting ability can be affected by her menstrual cycle when the world of sports media is, in itself, so male dominated. We will not see intelligent and sensitive sports reporting that understands the impact of female biology- something that is simply not on the radar of most men. Do young girls risk losing an interest in sports at puberty because of fears about their appearance and the difficulties of managing their periods? We need to research this and make a space for their experiences to be heard and by doing this, we will help prevent this from happening. Oh and we might end up with more than one toilet break per set for female tennis players at Wimbledon and better designed sanitary protection too.


Donating money to charities, blogging and tweeting about the issue all helps frank discussion too. Please check out the links below. In addition, women in Syria and similar war zones face added privation. Please read this article which tells you more about their plight and what you can do to help.

 Think Africa Press

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