Silencing Period Talk Hurts Athletes

6 minute read
Yu is an award winning journalist based in New York City and the author of Up to Speed: The Groundbreaking Science of Women Athletes. She writes about sports, science, and health

Mikaela Shiffrin was unstoppable this winter. The alpine skier won 14 World Cup races and ended the season with the overall, slalom, and giant slalom titles. Most notably, she notched her 88th victory to become the winningest skier in World Cup history—man or woman. But Shiffrin broke more than skiing records this season. She broke a taboo in sports, too—she talked about her menstrual cycle.

In interviews after the back-to-back wins that vaulted her past Lindsey Vonn to the top of the women’s all-time wins list, Shiffrin said she was exhausted. She didn’t sleep well and generally felt out of sorts before her race, mentioning that it was “an unfortunate time of my monthly cycle.” While Shiffrin didn’t shy away from talking about her cycle, she expressed some embarrassment, saying that she probably shouldn’t talk about it in her interviews.

The shame surrounding period talk, particularly within sports, isn’t surprising. It’s typical of the way that, for centuries, people have viewed the menstrual cycle as a weakness. Even in 2023, politicians in Florida want to keep girls from discussing menstruation. As Shiffrin has been soaring to new heights in her sport, the Florida House of Representatives proposed legislation to bar instruction on menstrual cycles before the sixth grade and prohibit talking about periods during the school day.

And yet, menstruation is a normal biological function and reality for half of the population around the world. The misconceptions and gender bias around menstrual cycles have led to missed opportunities and squandered potential that’s impacted women’s participation in sports, and their long-term health and well-being.

Read More: Sports Were Never Designed Around the Female Body

For centuries, menstruation has been used as an excuse to keep women out of the athletic arena. The Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that physical activity would harm a woman’s reproductive capacity. In the late 19th century, Boston physician Edward Clarke wrote in his book, Sex in Education; or, a Fair Chance for Girls, that women should refrain from exercise during menstruation. He explained that this non-essential activity would sap women of vital energy, leaving them weak and damaging their reproductive organs.

The stigma around menstruation and sports is still alive today. In February 2023, golfer Tiger Woods slipped a tampon into fellow player Justin Thomas’s hand after outdriving him on the ninth hole during the first round of the Genesis Invitational. Not only did Woods imply that Thomas played like a girl, he did so by reinforcing the notion that the menstrual cycle is a handicap to athletic performance.

It makes sense that women have been conditioned to downplay or ignore their cycle to gain access to sports, even though more than 80% experience cycle-related symptoms. Abdominal cramps, breast pain, fatigue, headaches, and mood changes can force women to change their training routine, underperform, or even miss a practice or game. But since menstruation is firmly associated with fertility and—by association—sex, it’s not considered a topic for polite conversation, especially in the male-dominated world of sports and between athletes and coaches, who are primarily men. It leaves women with no strategies on how to manage their symptoms except, as many athletes have anecdotally told me, to use pain relievers and a heating pad, even at the highest level of sport.

But solely viewing the menstrual cycle through the lens of reproduction is reductive. It’s contributed to the tight-lipped culture around women’s health that has real consequences beyond tasteless jokes. It keeps women from understanding a key part of their body’s physiology. Girls drop out of sport at higher rate than boys during puberty, with 51% of girls leaving sports behind by age 17. Women try to control of eliminate their cycle because they believe it will make them a better athlete. They also abandon sport because they fear their cycle will get in the way of their active pursuits.

The cycle is one of the most important biological rhythms. The fluctuation in hormones affects more than just the ovaries and uterus; it influences energy levels, brain function, muscle and bone growth, metabolism, and more. These effects can have a very real impact on how women feel when active and how the body adapts to training. Why wouldn’t we account for it during exercise and sport? It’s a stark contrast to how active and performance-driven people approach nutrition, recovery, or injury.

We need to change the narrative around the cycle. It’s a normal part of a woman’s physiology and the full picture of her as a human being. In a clip from Shiffrin’s YouTube series “Moving Right Along” she said, “Let’s normalize [menstrual cycles] because it is a real thing and it hurts and it’s exhausting.”

When women tune into their bodies and begin to notice trends in how they feel—good or bad—it gives them data about their own bodies. Then, they can pinpoint areas where they may need more support. When you can mitigate those symptoms, you may feel better and get more quality training days in.

And we’re seeing a shift. More athletes openly acknowledge what was once taboo—that they menstruate and perform at the highest level of sport. The Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League ditched their white uniform shorts in favor of dark shorts, acknowledging players’ concerns about wearing white while competing and menstruating. On TikTok, #cyclesyncingworkout has over 11.8 million views and “cycle syncing workout” was one of Google’s top trending search terms in 2022. Women want to know more about their cycle and how they can work with, rather than against, their individual physiology.

In order to continue to destigmatize the menstrual cycle we need more and better research on how the menstrual cycle affects women’s health and well-being, especially performance-driven women. Athletes, coaches, parents, and healthcare providers need more education and guidance on how best to support girls and women.

Ultimately, more frank conversations about the menstrual cycle empowers women to make informed decisions for how to work with their body, not fight or resent it. In doing so, we can stop using menstruation as a way to ostracize girls and women from sport.

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