Why Is Menstruation Still A Taboo Topic In Women's Sports?

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Heather Watson crouches down after a point in her first round match against Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria during day two of the 2015 Australian Open. (Photo: Getty Images)

When England’s Heather Watson failed to advance in the Australian Open earlier this week, the tennis star said in an interview following her losing match, “I think it’s just one of these things that I have, girl things.”

Though she didn’t say it directly, yes — she was talking about having her period. 

Her statement has made waves in the world of women’s sports, mainly because menstruation, and its affects on performance and stress levels, is not something that’s publicly spoken about.

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Heather Watson at the 2015 Australian Open. (Photo: Getty Images)

“No one ever talks about it,” Annabel Croft, Britain’s former number one ranked women’s tennis player, told The Guardian. “I don’t remember anyone talking about sportswomen like that.” But for female athletes, getting your period is a very real issue.

As the week progressed more women have spoken out. 

Tennis great Martina Navratilova told BBC Radio Five Live that the issue is very real. “It sounds like an excuse but for women it is reality,” said Navratilova.  “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.

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“It’s a bit of a taboo, you don’t want to use it as an excuse, but it can affect some players in a big way, Navratilova continues. “I never talked about it but it certainly was there. At least now you have the drugs that helped with the cramps. In my day there were no drugs.”

As a player, Croft herself never spoke of her menstrual cycle. “It was one of those things that was all hushed up. I remember being on court feeling dizzy, disorientated, tearful, then coming off court, going into the locker room, and finding my period had started — and realizing, ah, that’s why I was all over the place.”

Tara Moore, another British tennis player, told The Telegraph that she has nightmares about bleeding through her uniform during Wimbledon, where all players must wear white, and mostly just hopes her tournaments don’t line up with her period. 

“If something like that happens it’s mortifying — it’s a nightmare,” she said.

Does menstruation affect athletic performance? Science is undecided.

"It’s a difficult area to research," says Susan White, an Australian sports physician. “The things that some women associate with the menstrual cycle, like fatigue or bloating or general lethargy, are hard to measure. And even if we could measure them, it’s then difficult to say that it’s just one or a combination of those symptoms and other internal or external factors that may affect performance.”

‘World’s best performances have been recorded at all stages of the menstrual cycle, including the pre-menstrual and menstrual phases,” Dr White says. ‘However 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.”

Turkish researchers found that while “three our of four women said they felt worse just before menstruation, 63 percent said that their pain decreased during training and competition [for sports] and 62.2 percent said that they believed that their performance was just as good when they had their period as other times of the month.” 

But the UK charity Women in Sport commissioned its own research (in 2010) and found “that in some circumstances, reduction in aerobic capacity and strength were exhibited,” Ruth Holdaway, the charity’s chief executive, told The Guardian. “It is important that sport understands and is sensitive to the potential impacts of the menstrual cycle for female athletes. This is not an issue that should be taboo for sport.”

And what about leaking? 

Croft also mentioned a side effect of playing on your period that can result in great stress, saying that while playing tennis as a teen, she was “so terrified of leaking” while having to play in “those little white skirts.” 

 “Playing sports while menstruating presents a special set of physical and emotional challenges for many women,” Julie Sygiel, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Dear Kate, a line of underwear designed specifically to contain these kinds of leaks, tells Yahoo Health. “Growing up I played soccer and softball, and remember feeling increased levels of anxiety when I was on my period.”

Sygiel created Dear Kate underwear and yoga pants is to kick this anxiety to the curb so women can feel more confident on their period, regardless of whether they’re on the court or in the boardroom. 

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Sygiel explains that during a business course in college, her team “realized that every woman has a horror story from that time of the month — not to mention the monthly stress our period adds to daily life while we’re busy working, exercising, and doing all the other activities that ambitious women pursue.” Sygiel, who holds a BS in chemical engineering from Brown, eventually sought to create underwear in a material that could, essentially, eliminate that stress. Sygiel’s Underlux material can hold up to three teaspoons worth of liquid comfortably. 

And yet as Planned Parenthood points out in their online resources for teens, having your period is nothing to be ashamed about. “No one can tell by looking at you that you have your period. You don’t look or smell any different or act any differently. People will only know you’re having your period if you tell them. You can still swim, play sports, bathe, and do all the things you usually do.”

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