At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui did something revolutionary, something that lit up Twitter and took the media by surprise: she talked about her period. After finishing her 100-metre backstroke, Fu was crouched next to the pool, clutching her stomach. When a reporter approached her and asked if she was having stomach pain, Fu responded, “Yeah. Actually, my period started last night, so I’m feeling pretty weak and really tired.” In the context of the global taboo on menstruation, and in the specific context of China, where only 2% of women use tampons, and menstrual product ads are banned from primetime TV, Fu’s comments rang out loudly.
While this isn’t the first time an athlete has made menstruation a talking point, it’s one of only a handful of publicized instances. In 1996, German runner Uta Pippig got her period (as well as diarrhea) while running the Boston Marathon, and won, with blood running down her legs. At the 2015 Australian Open, British Number One tennis player Heather Watson experienced so much dizziness, nausea, and fatigue that she was forced to call a doctor between sets. Watson told BBC Sport, “I think it’s just one of these things that I have, girl things.” And at the 2015 London Marathon, Harvard MBA and drummer for M.I.A. Kiran Gandhi decided to freebleed for all 42 kilometres to call attention to the stigma (and also to avoid chafing).
In case you were somehow unaware, periods can really, really hurt:
It varies from person to person, but menstrual cramps are the norm for people who menstruate, ranging from slight discomfort to intense, vomit-inducing pain. Because of the stigma around talking about periods, this pain is usually hidden and suffered in silence. For professional athletes, this means enduring cramps along with other symptoms like fatigue, nausea, bloating, and back pain while also doing physically strenuous activities in full view of an audience and often the media.
Imagine someone blowing your stomach up with masses of air until you’re incredibly bloated. Then imagine having really bad cramps running right down your legs, and feeling dizzy, like you’ve just run up a mountain. Then get someone to hammer your back with a big mallet, so you have a thumping pain that doesn’t go away. Now try imagining what it would be like to play any professional sport feeling like this.
– Annabel Croft, former British Number One tennis player
Athletes who menstruate, especially those who play sports more associated with masculinity – football, hockey, boxing, etc. – are even more likely than the average person to try and hide the fact that they’re menstruating. This extra level of stigma in sports is the result of multiple, overlapping factors. First, let’s take a look at menstrual stigma itself.
The stigma surrounding menstruation has been around for hundreds of years, potentially hundreds of thousands. In all major religions except Sikhism, a person who is menstruating is considered impure.
When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening.
– Leviticus 15:19 (Judaism & Christianity)
Centuries later, this same stigma is still enduring. It’s part of our socialization – that periods are gross and that they shouldn’t be talked about. So many kids go through puberty and have their first period not knowing what it is, what to expect, or how to deal with it, because of this social stigma. Perhaps it’s connected to the way our society deals with sexual health – as quietly as possible. Or maybe religion is the source and it’s a result of its influence. Or maybe it’s just plain old misogyny. Whatever the origin, its effect is the more important element. Deborah Schooler, of the Center for Research on Gender and Sexuality, and her colleagues explain:
Many girls report shame about being seen with a menstrual product or, worse yet, about bleeding through clothing, and some adolescent girls report that they are embarrassed simply by the fact that they menstruate. These feelings are likely compounded by media portrayals of menstruation as a hygienic crisis.
Even when these people grow up and mature, gaining experience with menstruation and perhaps seeing periods as commonplace and natural rather than disgusting and shameful, the socialization of menstrual stigma will always continue to play a part, colouring the way they see themselves through others’ eyes.
I would like to recognize, before continuing, that it is not only women who menstruate; transgender (trans) men, non-binary people, and others can also menstruate. It should also be noted that many women don’t menstruate – women who are trans, women who have undergone hysterectomies, women with hormone irregularities, women who are pre-pubescent or post-menopausal, women who use some forms of birth control, and so on. This article will discuss how menstrual stigma functions in conjunction with misogyny, as well as how binary (masculine and feminine) gender expression works in sport. While some of these concepts function on the basis of gender essentialism (considering genders to be based on sets of biological features), I recognize my cisgender-centric focus and will work to address this issue.
Second, popular (and harmful) ideas about the female body.
There is a long history in the Western health sciences of producing thinly-veiled misogynistic myths disguised as scientific fact. During the Victorian era (the mid-late 1800s), the ovaries and uterus “were thought to control [a woman’s] entire nature, from her disposition to her intellectual abilities.” Although this idea was completely unfounded, it was spread by physiologists at the time. There was widespread fear that women who played sports might damage their reproductive organs, which would be just as bad as (or even worse than) brain damage. As noted by Martha Verbrugge, history professor at Bucknell University,
After basketball was invented in the 1890s, special rules were devised for females. Each player was confined to a small zone on the court and was not allowed to bounce the ball more than once, lest she overexert herself or dislodge her uterus.
Although uterine prolapse is a real condition (resulting from age and/or extreme muscle strain from childbirth, not exercise), it would be impossible for dribbling a basketball twice to cause it. Even more strenuous activities, like ski jumping – in which women couldn’t compete at the Olympic level until 2014, 90 years after it became an Olympic sport – are very unlikely to cause any damage to the uterus whatsoever. As of 2010, the president of the International Ski Federation, Gian-Franco Kasper, still stands by this myth.
The marathon also belonged to this category of “your uterus is going to fall out if you do that” sports. In 1967, when Kathrine Switzer was the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, she was physically grabbed by race director Jock Semple, who tried to rip her number off. It should be noted that there were no rules prohibiting women from entering; it was just assumed based on societal norms that none would.
Third, the construction of sport as masculine.
Steven Jackson, professor at the University of Otago, describes how sport might be “one of the last frontiers of masculinity”:
- Provides the opportunity to perform sanctioned physical aggression
- Provides a context for the demonstration of courage, commitment and sacrifice
- Helps reaffirm historical links with war and the military largely through popular discourse
- Offers an exclusive space for men away from work and family
- Provides a context where groups of men can engage in regular body contact without the fear of being labelled gay
- Offers a legitimate setting for male bonding and the consumption of alcohol and in particular beer
Essentially, Jackson academizes what most people already know: men want to be able to express their masculinity to other men and have them validate it. The introduction of women to this space violates its sanctity, because many of these principles are based on the exclusion of women.
In fact, the popular notion that women’s bodies are biologically unfit for athletics goes perfectly hand-in-hand with the hypermasculinity of sport. Jesse Couture, an MA student at the University of Lethbridge, explains that
[Women have been] burdened by bioessentialist myths which have long-constructed their bodies as inherently fragile, docile, and weak. Many of these narratives have worked to naturalize ideas about athleticism and the strong, muscular body as masculine or as tied explicitly to masculinity.
Because masculinity is so heavily based on being the antithesis to femininity, more heavily than vice-versa (masculinity being more fragile and more easily threatened), any time women begin to take on more masculine roles or do more masculine things, there is widespread cultural anxiety. In the United States in the 1940s, when the men went off to war and women were called on to fill their places, there were worries about what this would do to the women, as well as to the men when they returned. Would they return to a society which no longer needed men? Would the women’s roles no longer be filled? When more and more women began to participate in sports, similar cultural anxieties arose.
Many of the cultural anxieties that arose when women started to participate more in sports and fitness were also connected to the way the gender binary was seen within Western society. “Structural functionalism” was a concept theorized by American sociologist Talcott Parsons in 1951. Although it was not a new idea, his concept combined many similar theories which were popular at the time and have been popular historically. Parsons conceptualized society as “a kind of biological organism” which requires social structures (notably gender roles) to function properly; it “assumes femininity and masculinity to be ‘natural’ organizing principles.” Because the dominant norms of Western society are structured around gender roles so fundamentally, any move to uproot them looks like an attack on the society as a whole; thus, cultural anxiety.
Fourth, the way injury and pain are viewed in sport.
According to Geraldine Moreno-Black and Helen Vallianatos, professors at the University of Oregon and the University of Alberta (respectively), players are held to a particular standard of “sport ethic” – “teamwork, effective functioning under pressure, personal responsibility, and discipline.”
When male athletes are injured, they wear the pain as a sort of badge of honour and get back on the field unless they’re really severely injured. This contributes to all four of the elements of the “sport ethic” – teamwork, as they put themselves second to continue to support their team; effective functioning under pressure, as they keep playing despite the pain; personal responsibility, as they recognize any part they may have played in their injury; and discipline, as they persevere. However, these elements work a little differently when they’re applied to periods.
If Ryan Williams, the self-described “meninist” who told people to just “control ur bladder” and “hold it until u get to a toilet” instead of campaigning against the tampon tax, has taught us anything, it’s that there are a lot of ignorant men out there, and some of them think periods can be “held in.” While this is an extreme illustration, there is a certain myth of #selfcontrol around menstruation; people are responsible for having the bleeding under control at all times, as well as for controlling and/or enduring the pain. In a 2005 study on young girls’ experiences with menstruation and sport, participant Marjorie said, “Society says that you should be in control of yourself at all times. And in control of the factors, and all the components that makes you a whole, and bring you to a certain performance level. The fact of the matter is that you are not in control of your period.”
The trivialization of menstruation and menstrual pain can be attributed to its prominence in the media as well as the male-centric structure of our society. Because menstrual cramps are a feminized form of pain (heavily associated with femininity), they are not taken seriously and are believed to be exaggerated simply based on the idea that women have a lower tolerance for pain than men do (which is connected to bioessentialist myths about women’s physical abilities) as well as that women are seen as overdramatic, whereas men are straightforward and logical. The emotional effect of menstruation (which studies have shown may be a myth) leads to further trivialization; menstruating people are seen as irrational and moody to the point where, in the eyes of many men, just having the capacity to menstruate makes you unfit to hold positions of power.
The combination of all of these elements means that women, upon entering into the male-oriented and male-dominated sports arena, have to negotiate the gendered ways they may look and behave. Even in participating in sports audiences, women are often socially required to downplay any femininity they might normally display. In order to be validated as serious athletes, they have to deemphasize any femininity they may have and replace it with masculine traits. However, in doing so, they must give up their validity as women in the eyes of sport, and especially in the eyes of the media. It’s a complex balancing act that female athletes have to perform, on top of actually training for and engaging in the sport itself. We can see this exemplified in this video by Cosmo, which has muscular female athletes dress up in very feminine clothes and talk about their relationships with their bodies:
As a female athlete, who is already taken less seriously as her male counterparts by virtue of her gender, and who lives in a society which sees menstruation as disgusting and shameful as well as inherently connected to femininity, having her period could mean being further invalidated as an athlete. And as a professional athlete and a woman, both of whom are more heavily scrutinized by the media for their bodies, the pressure to hide one’s period is stronger than ever.
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