Monthlies. The curse. On the rag. Having the painters in. Surfing the crimson wave. Auntie Flo. Usually, the ruder the word, the more plentiful the euphemisms available. But the terms mentioned here are not alternative terms for some deviant sexual practice. They refer to menstruation, a natural occurrence for billions of women around the world, and one that still dare not speak its name. It is a topic rarely spoken of in public, and certainly not one that features regularly in the media.
So, when British tennis player Heather Watson recently crashed out of the Australian Open in the first round, blaming a poor performance on court on “girl’s things”, it created a bit of a stir. Former tennis number one Martina Navratilova came out in support of Watson, saying women “don’t want to use periods as an excuse”, but that they had “certainly affected” her own performance on court.
Another former player, Annabel Croft, said menstruation had always been a taboo subject in sport and she described Watson’s comments as “brave”.
While such support is heartening and an opportunity to discuss such a seldom-aired subject is welcome, perhaps we should look at exactly why it is considered “brave” to talk about a biologically-imperative function, such as periods. Probably because we have been conditioned to think of menstruation as shameful and embarrassing. The fact that Watson didn’t even use the word ‘period’ demonstrates this quite plainly.
But it is not just in sport that women suffer in silence. Very few women discuss menstruation with anyone other than female family members, colleagues or friends. It is a rare — and self-assured — woman who doesn’t find herself blushing when a tampon slips out of her bag or struggling when an event or occasion goes awry thanks to an inopportune leakage or bloodstain. Most women have also been subjected to the nods, winks, and “time of the month” comments if they appear hassled, grumpy or on edge.
Academic Gillian Kennedy, who has completed a Master’s dissertation at UCC on the subject of menstruation, says the shame surrounding it is ingrained in our DNA.
“There’s thousands of years of shame… if a woman has been shamed about her body, that is passed down through generations. We seem to have lost any type of ritual around menstruation, any type of celebration, any type of acknowledgment even.”
However, Kennedy believes that the story of menstruation is changing.
“We can show young girls and women how to use their natural physiological cycle to navigate their lives, to empower themselves. We operate in a linear calendar, but women are cyclical beings. All of that is completely dismissed by our culture. One woman I spoke to for my dissertation told me afterwards she was really nervous but, because I was so comfortable with it, she relaxed. It’s a relief to talk about something when we hear somebody else talk about it.
“Shame thrives in secrecy and the only way to dissipate shame is to share it with somebody who won’t shame us for being shamed.”
This will resonate for any woman who received little or no guidance or education about menstruation at school beyond the science class, while most mothers, themselves raised in a repressed era, imbued the onset of periods with a sense of terror, never mind shame.
Kennedy is convinced from her research that things are changing for the better for young girls, as they are more comfortable with their bodies.
“Young girls speak more openly and freely about it, because they speak more openly and freely about a lot of things. Even how they touch each other in a non-sexual way, how they hug each other. I didn’t grow up with that kind of tactility.”
Also, helping blast the taboos surrounding menstruation are people like writer Caitlin Moran, whose phenomenally successful book How to be a Woman brought her searingly honest take on the issue to a huge global audience. Describing the onset of menstruation and the shroud of secrecy surrounding the experience she wrote: “Sometimes, there are huge bloodclots, that look like raw liver. I presume this is the lining of my womb, coming off in inch-thick slices, and that this is just how visceral menstruation is. It all adds up to a dreary sense that something terribly wrong is going on, but that it is against the rules of the game to ever mention it.”
It is hard to know what the rules of the ‘game’ are for women in Irish sport. It proved difficult to get an Irish sportswoman to comment on whether periods impacted on her performance; while some didn’t see it as an issue, others were reluctant to go on the record.
Aoife Lane, chairperson of the recently established Women’s Gaelic Players’ Association said: “We are interested in learning more about our players, including factors that affect their performance, both physically and emotionally, which would include menstruation.
“Anecdotally, we would expect that players are mindful of when their period is due in relation to important games but, beyond that, have little information about how much of a factor it is in the context of performance.”
It looks like Irish sport might need its own Heather Watson to help change the conversation on menstruation.