Fu Yuanhui

How Olympic Athletes Talking About Periods Will Change The Dialogue in Sports

When was the last time you had your period? Better yet, when was the last time that being on your period made you feel like laying in bed all day and doing absolutely nothing? For me, it was just a couple weeks ago that my menstrual cycle had me doubled over in pain as I canceled plans to drink half my weight in mimosas that I had been looking forward to for weeks. Luckily for me (and the rest of the world), I’m no Olympic athlete. In fact, I can barely kick a soccer ball, let alone swim a 100m race or do a flawless back handspring with two-and-a-half twists in the air and a blind landing, a la Simone Biles.

Simone BilesPhoto Credit: Jeremy White; composite image by Sergio Peçanha and Jon Huang

So you’ve got your average woman with no athletic ability whatsoever (who can’t swing brunch when she’s got period cramps) — and then you’ve got women like Fu Yuanhui who, despite being on her period, got into the Olympic swimming pool and put her years of physical and mental training to the test as she competed in the 4x100m relay.

After the race, an interviewer asked if she was okay and she told them, “I feel that I didn’t swim well today. I let my teammates down…Yes (my belly hurts) because my period came yesterday. I’m feeling a bit weak and exhausted but this is not an excuse”.

And the gold medal in breaking down period stigma goes to…Fu Yuanhui.

By being open about menstruating during the Olympics, Yuanhui did more than just publicly talk about her period. She refueled the conversation that British tennis player, Heather Watson, started back in 2015 after losing her first round of the Australian open. And it’s an important conversation to have.

Heather WatsonPhoto Credit: USA TODAY

But the real power here is in what happens next. How will these moments in sports history redefine the way young athletes relate to their periods? How will sports change due to these brave and honest declarations that, yes, having a period sometimes does affect you as an athlete and it’s okay to talk about it?

They will encourage more research on periods and athleticism

One of the things I think we’ll see as a result of periods being a headlining topic of the Olympics is more research on how and why menstruation affects athletes. The exposure could lead to increased funding to facilitate scientific studies, and the data gathered could then be used to help athletes effectively manage their flows to optimize performance. If it’s determined that the light-headedness and low energy many experience during their periods is caused by an iron deficiency, then that can be directly addressed. Or we might discover that our assumptions have been wrong all along, and will need to look elsewhere for answers. Once adequate research is done, we can begin the work of tackling these issues head on. But we can’t do that until we truly understand what we’re dealing with. These conversations in such a public setting will spur the kind of changes that are going to make a real difference – not just for athletes, but the rest of us too.

They will dismantle false beliefs about menstruation

Did you know that only 2% of menstruators in China use tampons? There’s a real lack of knowledge around them – 38% of those surveyed said that they didn’t use them because they didn’t know how. Tampons are never mentioned in sex education classes, and commercials for them aren’t shown on primetime TV (or during lunch). There’s also a belief that using a tampon will take away your virginity, something held in very high regard in Chinese culture. So, swimming is something that many in China think you just can’t do when you’re on your period. When Yuanhui talked to the interviewer about why she struggled in the race, someone called her a liar because “you can’t swim when you’re on your period”. They wanted to know why there wasn’t blood in the water.

Of course it’s not just China that’s in the dark about the truths of menstruation. The United States, a leader in using period-shaming in advertising, is also behind the times when it comes to understanding different aspects of having a period. We’re taught that menstruating is unhygienic, gross, and all around something that you just don’t talk about. That’s why when Yuanhui and Watson stand up and say, “Yeah, I kinda sucked because I’m bleeding”, we listen for the chatter that comes afterwards. They’re dismantling a way of thinking that’s been taught for centuries.

They make it OK for athletes to bleed

What these professional athletes are doing when they attribute their struggles to menstruation is letting other people know that it’s okay to bleed as an athlete. It’s okay to have slow days. It’s alright if you didn’t perform perfectly. Would both Yuanhui and Watson have liked to win? Of course. But, by using their losses as a platform to bring attention to a matter that has been stigmatized for far too long, they are approaching one of the last sporting taboos and letting everyone know that it’s normal, it’s natural, and that other menstruating athletes aren’t alone in the challenges they face. They are helping to shape the future of women in sports and change the dialogue to one of openness and positivity.

Featured Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images


cvanruvChristina Vanvuren is a freelance sex & reproductive health writer living vicariously through herself in Atlanta, GA. When she’s not championing for a world free from period and slut-shaming you can find her drinking copious amounts of coffee, traveling, and nurturing her friendships with badass women around the world. You can connect with her on Facebook, her website, or via email at write@christinavanvuren.com

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