Tennis player Heather Watson’s declarations on 20th January have opened up a debate in the media about the taboo of menstruation in elite sport, when she revealed that her poor performance in the Australian Open was due to the fact that she was menstruating.
Articles quickly appeared (such as The Guardian, BBC News, The Independent, The Huffington Post) with comments by other sportswomen who saw the moment as a liberating opportunity to criticise the situation and shed light on the ways menstruation is dealt with, or not, in the world of elite sport. Some focused on the lack of information and research into the menstrual cycle in relation to performance and the lack of a welcoming environment, for example, in the case of certain coaches who find the topic embarrassing. Long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe criticised the fact that knowledge is not shared about what does or does not work in athletes on their period, specifically the wrong medical advice given to Jessica Judd at the World Championships in 2013. She was given a menstruation inhibitory drug that Radcliffe and other athletes knew had negative effects.
This buzz about menstruation and sport shows the degree of invisibility of periods in society more widely. It suggests that until now nobody was aware (imagined) that sportswomen menstruate. It’s not a problem of sport, it’s a problem of society that in this case has been made visible. On a different note, this reminds me of an interview with the Spanish-Argentine model Martina Klein. She talked on a TV show about the fact that models are people who shit and are affected by constipation like everybody else.
Watson’s declarations are a great step-forward, we only have to see the stir that they have caused. The secrecy around menstruation and the way it is addressed reflects the extent to which menstruation is still a taboo. Even Watson never pronounced the term ‘menstruation’ or ‘period’ and preferred to refer to it in a euphemistic way, using the expression ‘girl things’. It’s reflective of a double standard in which you can’t talk (you feel you are not welcomed to talk and you internalise it) openly about periods unless it is in the ‘right’ environment of the private space or the context of an all-female team or group. Commenting on the events, former tennis player Annabel Croft’s remarks show this unease that menstruation provokes:
I guess it’s not a very nice subject to be talking about because of what it is. Even though it’s a natural bodily function, it’s not something that many people want to talk about in graphic detail. And I don’t actually blame them. I don’t think men should be forced to talk about something if they don’t want to.
Why is menstruation ‘a not very nice subject’? Many people want to talk about it as has been seen and, more importantly, many people (everybody) would benefit from talking about it in a normal way.
This secrecy about menstruation is also reflected in the language used in the majority of adverts for menstrual products. Bodyform’s campaign ‘Times have Changed’ (2014) is an interesting example that deals with past and present representations and language. In the advert the background voice, taken from the 1953 American educational video ‘Molly Grows Up’, advises girls not to do certain activities while menstruating. The advert juxtaposes this sound with images of the contemporary trend in advertising of showing that menstruating women are able to do any kind of physical activity, even in shorts. It’s revealing and paradoxical, however, that current adverts avoid the term ‘menstruation’ while the old voice over does use the term.
It seems that menstruators have to remind society from time to time that we have bodies that bleed, so that people are not as shocked when menstruation is removed from the private sphere / comfort zone. In this respect ‘Molly Grows Up’ is dated and cringy but the end statement is very relevant for 2015: ‘And remember: menstruation is as normal and natural as eating, or breathing, or sleeping’.