Why Is It Taboo for Athletes to Talk About Their Periods?

British champ Heather Watson blamed "girl stuff" for a recent loss.

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Professional athletes have to weather aches and pains all the time. But when it comes to female athletes, there's one pain they can't talk about: their periods.

Recently, British tennis champ Heather Watson got the boot during the first round of the Australian Open, and she blamed the dizziness, nausea, and exhaustion she experienced during her match.

"I feel very light-headed and low on energy—it's a shame that it's today," she told the BBC. Two years ago, Watson had suffered from glandular fever, but she said she was confident this wasn't the same thing. "I think it's just one of these things that I have, girl things. It happens," she said. 

In an interesting twist that puts the gender politics of the 2015 athletic world in perspective, Watson is being heralded as brave for even alluding to having her period, or any medical issues related to her gender. Talking about menstruation is so rare that the British press seized upon the quote and published think piece after think piece.

Tennis great Martina Mavratilova said she could relate. "It's a bit of a taboo. You don't want to use it as an excuse, but it can affect some players in a big way," she said in an interview with the BBC. "I never talked about it but it certainly was there. At least now you have the drugs that help with the cramps. In my day there were no drugs." 

Of course, different women experience different symptoms during their menstrual cycle, and some feel worse than others. And it's unfair to assume that all women are incapacitated when they have their periods. But some female athletes openly analyze their cycles in order to maximize performance. After all, peak physical condition is a top priority.

According to the Guardian, the British field hockey team had to email their coach on the first day of their periods before the London Olympics, and their trainings were tweaked accordingly. And runner Jessica Judd said that doctors once tried to delay her period using medication before a race, but the side effects made her performance even worse. 

It's a tough subject to talk about, especially because today's women are supposed to do it all, without showing any signs of being, well, human women. And nobody wants another rationale for misogynists to claim that women are weaker than men. But perhaps an open discussion can lead to a broader understanding of how hormones can affect athletic performance. And at tennis events like Wimbledon, where everyone must wear white and can only take one bathroom break per set, a little accommodation might be better for everyone. 

Megan Friedman
Megan Friedman

Megan Friedman is the former managing editor of the Newsroom at Hearst. She's worked at NBC and Time, and is a graduate of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism.