By Julia Kepczynska 

Julia Kepczynska is a rising senior majoring in Human Rights in the Dual BA between Columbia University and Sciences Po. A self-proclaimed athlete, she frequently enjoys playing and watching tennis, and is currently training to run the 2020 NYC Marathon in November. 

When the news of the 2020 Olympic Games postponement broke, thousands of athletes and fans were left distraught and heartbroken. Years of training and practice went for naught, and the chance to compete and perform was stolen by something completely out of their control. However, female athletes deal with their own seemingly ‘uncontrollable’ obstacles that are indiscriminate to a tournament, location, or even, the Olympic Games: their menstrual cycle. Menstruation has its own rather uncomfortable side effects. Women experience bloating, cramps, heavy flow, etc., with which they must learn to manage—even in times of competition. Some female athletes are pressured to see their periods as an impediment, something they have to contain and manage to perform well and go as far as taking birth control to induce menstrual suppression. This begs the question, why do women see menstruation as something that must be fixed? Is this because we see non-menstruators, or men, as the norm, especially in the competitive athletic world? Perhaps we need to look deeper and analyze how we, as a society, impose the view that menstruation is a challenge and thus something to be managed.

It comes, then, at no surprise to link athleticism and masculinity. Indeed, most of us implicitly make the connection when watching sports coverage that is glaringly male-dominated. Since female athletics receive only about 4% of overall sports coverage, we subconsciously disapprove of any indication of femininity in sports. For example, the backlash against Serena Williams’ 2019 US Open bodysuit was targeted instead of her athletic performance, as commentators focused on her body in lacking “modesty” that a mother should have.

The same goes for menstruation and sports. Female athletes are shamed if they bleed and simultaneously shamed if they are caught with menstrual products. Due to these mounting, sexist pressures, along with the very little and precious publicity they get, female athletes feel like they have to conceal any sign of menstruation. During the media coverage they get, women are constantly being watched by a large audience—most of whom are waiting for an opportunity to criticize. A drop of blood or a single tampon is seen as a direct form of weakness against the norm of the non-menstruating male. 

If half the population understands what it means to engage in sports while menstruating, why do we put up with the stigma and shame? Well, some women have already started to openly challenge this. Former British number one women’s tennis player Annabel Croft called menstruation “the last taboo” in sport, while others have been open about having their menstrual cycle during competitions. During the 2016 Summer Olympics, Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui responded to a reporter who asked her about her performance and why she was clutching her stomach in pain, saying she had gotten her period just the day before, which impacted her abilities. Critics later debated whether or not it was “hygienic” for her to go into a swimming pool, adding to the continued stigmatization of menstruation as a taboo. Perhaps the most famous example was Kiran Gandhi, a runner in the 2015 London Marathon, who let her period flow freely throughout the race. Although she also faced negative feedback for being “unladylike” and “disgusting” Gandhi’s choice helped to prompt a larger conversation about menstruation and sports.

For other athletes, the topic strikes a particularly sensitive chord due to other experiences. Athletic amenorrhea, or a lack of a menstrual cycle due to the amount of physical exertion and lack of body fat, is a different challenge some women face. Indeed, hormonal fluctuations affect ovulation, leading some female athletes to stop having their periods altogether. This is a common effect of high-level athleticism, one that shouldn’t be criticized either. In fact, some athletes state that their workouts are more painful and difficult when ovulating, and thus, they see the lack of a menstrual cycle as a benefit. Therefore, generalizing what a period should look or feel like, invalidates a woman’s individual experience with her cycle and body, the most intimate and important relationship for any athlete.

Menstruating is different and unique to each woman. For some, it can be debilitatingly painful, therefore, suppression helps them to function without discomfort and compete at their highest capacity. For others, it’s a normal indication of healthy, balanced hormones and is linked to good bone health and energy levels, both of which are critical for athletic success. Still others experience amenorrhea, precisely due to their rigorous training. All too often, we generalize our perception of what an athlete is to be or to act like based on what we are indoctrinated to think is the norm, through commentators’ sexist statements, media coverage, and the stigmatization of a female’s abilities. When we view non-menstruators, or men, as the norm in any category, especially in sports, we fail to include discussions and topics that are inherent to a woman’s experience, including menstruation. Ultimately, what we need to learn is that bleeding while competing isn’t wrong, and neither is a lack of it. We must challenge the judgment and stigma that we impart on either of these scenarios – and let female athletes do what they do best: win!

In Spring 2020, Columbia students and faculty had the opportunity–for the first time ever–to spend a full semester exploring menstruation through many different angles in the course “Menstruation, Gender, and Rights: Interdisciplinary Perspectives.” Students engaged in writing OpEd style short pieces that draw attention to various facets of menstruation neglected in the mainstream discourse. Leading up to the worldwide day celebrating menstruation, we have the honor to present a selection of emerging menstrual voices. If you’re interested in joining, please stay tuned–we plan to offer the course again in Spring 2021. — Professor Inga Winkler