Now that our heartrates have returned to normal following the excitement of the Women’s World Cup, Chalice Foundation founder Jane Bennett explores the menstrual taboo and girl’s sports participation in two parts. Read on for Part I.
It is well documented that taking part in physical activity can have a profound and positive effect on mental wellbeing as well as providing many pivotal life skills such as resilience, teamwork and communication.
-Stephanie Hilborne, Women in Sport CEO
Tween and teen girls dwindling participation in sport has long concerned clubs, parents, coaches and sporting bodies.
- Dr Natalie Brown is a research scientist working for the Welsh Institute of Performance Science, based in the department of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Swansea University. She says, ‘Through a survey aimed at teachers, 88% of teachers perceived the menstrual cycle as the most prevalent reason to affect participation in physical activity for girls.’
- A UK 2021 survey of more than 4,000 teenagers found there are complex barriers and deep-rooted negative attitudes affecting girls’ enjoyment of sport, including period shame and body image issues.
- 78% said they avoided sport when they had their period.
- Of girls who avoided exercise on their periods, 73% said it was due to pain and 62% out of fear of leakage.
- Overall, seven in 10 girls said they avoided sport when menstruating, because of pain, tiredness and self-consciousness .
- 64% of girls will have dropped out of sport altogether by the end of puberty .
- Suncorp’s Australian Youth Confidence Report 2019 and a study by the Australian Sport Commission released in November 2017 both reported similar findings, that more than half of those girls involved in sport have left by their fifteenth birthday.
Losing sport from their lives during these formative years equates to a loss of joy as well as good lifelong health. We must bust the myth that teenage girls drop out of sport simply because their priorities change. Our research has found that 59% of teenage girls who used to be sporty like competitive sport, but they’re being failed due to early years stereotyping, inadequate opportunities and a complete dearth of knowledge about managing female puberty.
-Stephanie Hilborne, Women in Sport CEO
While there are a number of reasons for this the negative impacts of the menstrual taboo are a key factor, and, with a clear plan and the resolve to enact that plan, these can be eased then eliminated within your club, school and community. This will in turn help to ease other reasons for disengagement with sport, like low confidence and negative body image.
Let’s look to elite sports to see how menstrual stigma has played out and how it is changing.
The menstrual taboo and sport
By way of a graphic illustration of how the menstrual taboo plays out in sport, we see the ‘heroic’ pride in this photo of a bleeding male athlete, and a rare photo of a female athlete, Kiran Gandhi, bleeding during the London Marathon in 2015 . The latter case caused shock waves around the globe and triggered important conversations about menstruation and sport. The former, of course, not at all.
You see, culture is happy to speak about and objectify the parts of the body that can be sexually consumed by others, but the moment we talk about something that is not for the enjoyment of others, like a period, everyone becomes deeply uncomfortable.
-Kiran Gandhi 
When a male triathalete commented on the accomplished (18 half ironman championships, podiumed 33 times, silver in world championships) Emma Pallant-Browne’s Instagram picture, ‘Not the most flattering pic of @em_pallant – surely you can crop it a bit better’ Emma gave a powerful and instructive response,
Thanks for caring but definitely something I’m not shy to talk about because it’s the reality of females in sport.
My period comes over a month in between and there will be one day where it is super heavy. I pray it won’t be race day but every now and then it is. No matter what tampon I have experimented with, for anything over 3hrs it’s too heavy.
So just as someone might get gut issues in a race I have to suck it up and give what I have and not be afraid to talk to women who have the same problem.
After a strongly positive response from her comments she goes on,
This is true female sport and the more barriers we can break through the better. If you wrote to me saying 99% of the women you know would be mortified at this then that is exactly why I’m sharing it, because there is nothing wrong. It’s natural and coming from eating issues as an endurance runner when I was growing up where I didn’t have my period, I now see it as beautiful. So if you have a photo like this, save it, cherish it, remember how you performed on a tough day because one day you might just be able to help someone else with it.
In another example of how rare acknowledgement of periods has been in sport, Fu Yuanhui, a Chinese swimmer at the Rio Olympics in 2016, made global headlines when she told the world she had her period. When she finished fourth in the women’s 4×100 meter medley relay, an interviewer found her doubled over and grimacing. She said, ’I don’t think I performed very well today. I feel I let my teammates down’. Asked whether she was suffering from stomach pains, the 20-year-old swimmer said ‘It’s because my period came yesterday, so I felt particularly tired – but this isn’t an excuse, I still didn’t swim well enough .’
It’s instructive that this simple and straightforward response is so rare that it’s remarkable.
 Weaver, M. (2022) ‘More than 1 million girls in the UK lose interest in sport as teenagers’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/mar/07/uk-girls-lose-interest-in-sport-as-teenagers-women-in-sport-survey
 Brown, N. Dr (2021), ‘We’re On It’, The Leak, https://chalicefoundation.org/2021/04/29/were-on-it/
 Women in Sport UK (2022) ‘Reframing Sport for Teenage Girls: Tackling teenage disengagement’ https://womeninsport.org/?s=Tackling+Teenage+Disengagement (PDF)
 Women in Sport UK (2019) ‘Women in Sport: Reframing sport for teenage girls’, https://www.gmmoving.co.uk/media/2544/women-in-sport-teenage-girls-dropping-out-of-sport-and-pa.pdf (PDF)
 Women’s Running (2015)‘ This Woman Ran on Her Period Without a Tampon’, https://www.womensrunning.com/culture/this-woman-ran-a-marathon-on-her-period-without-a-tampon/
 Barns, S. and London, B., (2015), ‘Women’s bodies don’t exist for public consumption’: Runner hits back at critics after being branded disgusting for completing London Marathon during her period without a tampon’, The Daily Mail, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3201878/Runner-completed-London-Marathon-free-bleeding-hits-critics-uncomfortable-normal-process.html
 Boecker, B. (2023), ‘True female sport: Triathlete Emma Pallant-Browne shuts down online trolls over visible period stain’, Women’s Agenda, https://womensagenda.com.au/life/sport/true-female-sport-triathlete-emma-pallant-browne-shuts-down-online-trolls-over-visible-period-stain/
Jane Bennett is the founder of the Chalice Foundation and a social worker, researcher, writer and educator with nearly 40 years in practice. After experiencing the revelations of Natural Fertility Management in the mid-1980s Jane began working as a Natural Fertility Management counsellor, then trainer and later authoring The Natural Fertility Management Kits with Francesca Naish. Jane launched Celebration Day for Girls in 2000, Cool on the Inside in 2002, Fathers Celebrating Daughters in 2004 and Mense-Ed in 2016. Jane co-created The Rite Journey girl’s Year 9 program, and continue’s her long-standing role with Natural Fertility Management. Jane is the author of A Blessing Not a Curse and Girltopia, and co-author of About Bloody Time – The Menstrual Revolution We Have to Have, Woman Wise Conversation Cards, The Complete Guide to Optimum Conception, The Natural Fertility Management Contraception Kit and The Pill – Are You Sure It’s for You?, and is eternally passionate about nourishing healthy curiosity and best-practice self-care for women and girls.