Britain’s number one tennis player Heather Watson shocked audiences when she was eliminated from the Australian Open in the first round. But she shocked viewers even more when she explained why.
Watson had to call a doctor mid-match because she was dizzy and sick. When asked about her illness off-court by a reporter, she explained she was suffering debilitating side effects from her period.
“It’s just one of those things that I have, girl things. It just happens,” she told BBC News.
It seems obvious that experiencing severe side effects while having your period would dramatically impact your performance as a professional athlete. Those side effects can be debilitating at the best of times – nausea, vomiting, cramps, dizziness and body aches – let alone during an international sporting tournament.
Given that these symptoms can keep women from doing regular daily activities, to say nothing of a four-hour tennis match, why was it so alarming that Watson pointed this out?
According to the professional female athletes that have spoken out since Watson’s defeat, the reason is that menstruation is still a taboo subject in sports. The impact of having your period on your health and athletic performance is the only thing in the sporting world that athletes are still not allowed to discuss.
Annabel Croft, a former number one British tennis star, was the first to point this out.
“Watson’s admission that she wasn’t able to perform because of her period is a first, and has opened up a huge debate on menstruation in female sport. In my opinion, it’s one of the last taboos to be smashed,” she said.
“I had many similar experiences when I played professional tennis. I suddenly felt very dizzy and had to leave the court. I didn’t feel like I could talk about why I had to do this. Like so many other female athletes, I suffered in silence.”
She said that while many other barriers have been broken down for women in sport, this one just won’t budge.
“Strangely, not much has changed in the past 30 years. When I say it’s the last taboo, I mean it. We can talk about all sorts of other things now, yet menstruation has always been kept under wraps. It’s never something men want to hear or talk about, as it makes them squirm,” she said.
Tara Moore, another of Britain’s top tennis players, said she has been badly affected by her period during tournaments. She also said she thinks the rule that players are only allowed one bathroom break per set should be changed for women.
“At Wimbledon we have to wear white, so it’s quite a big deal. Especially because male players don’t understand that we have another element to deal with,” she told The Telegraph.
Studies are largely inconclusive about the extent of the impacts of menstruation on physical performance, but most agree it has at least some physical or psychological impact on players. One study, conducted by Women in Sport in 2010, observed reduced strength and aerobic capacity in women who were menstruating. A study conducted on Italian soccer players found that women were more injury-prone while having their periods.
So how can we bring down the “last taboo” for women in sport? Croft says the most important thing is follow Watson’s lead and bring it to the attention of audiences and sportspeople as often as possible.
“The response to Watson’s proves that it’s a topic that women are dying to talk about it. And the more we do this, the easier it will get for female athletes,” she said.