In the wake of British tennis star Heather Watson’s controversial post-game comments alluding to her menstrual cycle at the Australian Open, Imprint investigated whether or not the topic of menstrual cycles is as taboo in UW athletics as it is in elite professional sports.
In her post-game interview with BBC, Watson said, “I felt very light-headed and low energy — you know it’s a shame that it’s today … I think it’s just one of these things that I have, girl things. It just, yeah, happens.”
Watson’s comments have opened a dialogue about female athletes, their bodies, and how their menstrual cycle affects them from a physiological perspective. It’s also opened up a conversation about how open female athletes are about their menstrual cycle within the locker room and with their coaching staff.
According to a player on the UW women’s hockey team (who has asked to remain anonymous), she’s comfortable speaking about her menstrual cycle with her teammates, but admits it’s not something she talks about in public.
“In the locker room I definitely feel that it’s okay to be honest about [it], and I don’t feel uncomfortable about it,” she said. “In public, it’s not something I talk about as much.”
In contrast, Nathalie Skaf, a member of the UW tennis team, mentions that there is generally a generational gap when it comes to discussing menstrual cycles openly.
“The older generations are the ones who have the issue with it,” Skaf said. “Unfortunately, most of our coaches belong to that generation.”
Patricia Craton, coach of the UW men’s and women’s tennis teams, has had little-to-no discussion with her female players about their individual menstrual cycles and how it might affect their performance on a given day.
“I’ve never had the experience of discussing the menstrual cycle … because no one has ever offered it as an excuse,” Craton said.
When discussing how comfortable she is about bringing up menstrual cycle-related issues to her three coaches — one female, two male — the anonymous player said, “I feel like I could go to any of them to talk about it, but I would definitely go to the female coach first.”
Imprint also reached out to UW’s male coaches. The one male coach that responded stated he was not comfortable speaking about this topic on the record.
Discussing menstrual cycles can be difficult for some athletes. Lucy Yao, a member of the UW tennis team, said, “I think female athletes are stuck between a rock and a hard place when talking about needing to portray a ‘tough,’ ‘masculine’ image when it comes to sports.”
Yao highlighted some of the sexist language used in sports and female athletics as part of the reason why menstrual cycles continue to be a taboo.
“Phrases like ‘you hit like a girl’ or ‘you run like a girl’ isn’t [sic] always used or interpreted as a compliment, especially for male athletes,” Yao said.
Shannon Stettner, a professor in UW’s women’s studies department with a specialization in women’s health activism and reproductive health said via email that feminine qualities, which Yao described above, are seen as weaknesses not only in athletics but society, which contributes to the ongoing stigma surrounding menstrual cycles.
“The issue is less about whether or not sports are inherently sexist and more about the kind of qualities we value as a society,” Stettner explained. “In sports, gender expectations play out in different ways. Women are either seen to transgress the qualities generally associated with femininity — and are criticized for doing so — or they maintain those feminine characteristics and are perceived as lesser competitors, hence the ‘like a girl’ comments.”
Stettner said the fact that women’s bodies being historically viewed as the ‘other’ and men’s bodies being viewed as the ‘norm’ contributes to the narrative of weak feminine qualities.
“Women’s bodies were judged and they were judged as different from, and weaker than, men’s bodies,” she said. “Menstruation was, and is, seen as a weakness or as unhygienic.”
According to Yao, female athletes are offered very little flexibility. She said female athletes are going to receive criticism regardless of whether their athletic performance and demeanor is deemed “too masculine” or “too feminine.” However, Craton said this is not just limited to sports when asked whether or not sports are inherently sexist.
Watson’s comments have opened up an opportunity within athletics to discuss the lesser-approached experiences of female athletes.
Yao said she believes Watson’s comments are significant because she’s an elite athlete in her sport. Her forthcoming nature on how her menstrual cycle affected her performance will help break the stigma.
“The more that menstrual cycles are discussed, especially by top athletes such as Heather Watson, the less taboo they become,” Yao said. “There shouldn’t be any taboo or stigma in discussing normal functions of the human body, including periods.”
Craton said that this is not the first time a prominent female athlete has spoken publicly about her menstrual cycle and how it has “adversely affected her performance.”
“I recall Martina Navratilova [a female tennis star] stating the same. The difference of course is that Heather’s comment was made in a very public forum,” Craton said.
She later added, “While it was okay for Heather Watson to say why she wasn’t at her best, for me it is still a private matter. I guess we all have different boundaries. Some people are intensely private and others not, so it is a matter of what each is comfortable with.”
Craton, however, said she hopes it doesn’t become the norm for society to assume that a female athlete’s poor performance can always be attributed to her period.
“What I hope won’t happen is for a reporter to ask a female athlete, after a disappointing loss or performance, if she happened to be menstruating,” she said. “How do you think that question would go down?”