Sports

Freebleeding in Sports: Fighting the Tide Against the Menstruation Taboo

Periods are still considered a major taboo for women in sport and remain are rarely discussed in wider society. We spoke to Kiran Gandhi, who chose to "freebleed" while running last year's London Marathon.
October 24, 2016, 1:49pm
Image via @madamegandhi on Twitter

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

I got my first period on the M6 between Cardiff and Birmingham when I was 13 years old. When I started crying about yet another nightmarish change unleashing itself upon my unfamiliar pubescent body, my mum reassured me by telling me that half of the human race have periods for most of their adult lives. In other words, I wasn't special. She was right: periods are a totally normal thing that happen every month without causing a fuss or attracting bears to the village. The migraines, bloating, fatigue, cramps and swollen funbags are all just a part of the beautiful package deal that comes with owning a womb.

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And yet, despite being so normal, periods are still considered a major taboo for women in sport. Heather Watson, Britain's number one female tennis player at the time, had to call a doctor at the end of her first set in the opening round of the 2015 Australian Open because she was experiencing the dizziness, nausea and low energy levels that members of the uterine community know all too well. Watson's performance prompted former British number one Annabel Croft to say that women's monthly issues get swept under the carpet, and that this stigma forces sportswomen to suffer in silence. Research by UCL and St Mary's University found that more than half of female athletes surveyed believed their menstrual cycle affected their training and performance. When your career depends almost entirely on your physical abilities, it's obviously going to be hard to perform at your best when you're shedding your womb lining and feeling like a tender-tittied dairy cow.

READ MORE: What It's Like For a Woman Taking Up Football in Her Twenties

With so many sportswomen reporting that their menstrual cycle impacts their performance it seems bizarre that periods are almost entirely absent from sporting discourse. Commentators will come out with absolutely any old shit when they're trying to explain dips in performance – from a change in coach to having Judy Murray as a mother – but the effect of a heavy period is never discussed.

If you've ever had a dickhead ex-boyfriend ask you if you're on your period because he DOESN'T UNDERSTAND WHY YOU'RE UPSET, you'll agree that it wouldn't be ideal to hear male commentators speculating as to whether a woman is on the rag. However, when injuries and mental boundaries are discussed at such length, an unwillingness to even acknowledge a monthly occurrence that categorically does affect women playing sports serves to contribute to period stigma.

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When Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui admitted that her period prevented her from performing at her best during the recent Rio Olympics, a number of fans back home said they didn't even understand that a woman could swim during her period. While that's an untruth I actively encouraged when it came to convincing my sports teachers I couldn't get in the pool once I hit puberty, it's kind of gross that period taboos have left so many of us in the dark about menstruation.

Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui // PA Images

In the face of such antiquated attitudes to periods one woman decided to try to change these misconceptions. Last year, Kiran Gandhi ran the London Marathon while wearing The Red Badge of Courage. She swerved pads and tampons, choosing to freebleed for the duration of her marathon run. Kiran covered the full 26.2 miles with her crotch covered in period blood because no one likes the feeling of a soggy wad of cotton stuffed inside their funhouse. In the process, she started a global conversation about period stigma, female athletes, and access to sanitary items in the developing world.

With all this in mind – and given my natural predisposition to talk loudly and incessantly about menstruation – I decided to spend my last period freebleeding while exercising to see how it feels to live and function like a normal human being when you're bleeding everywhere.

The week rolled around with all the pomp and ceremony of a set of blood stained bed sheets, and I coerced myself into going for a jog on the first day. Despite talking it up a lot in the days before my period I was actually kind of terrified at the prospect of powering around Greater Manchester with my crotch covered in blood.

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I was expecting it to be absolute carnage and predicted that I'd feel gross for the whole six miles. But, to my surprise, it was totally fine. Exercise is inherently awful and I hate it, but I felt way more comfortable forcing myself to run without a foreign object shoved up to my cervix. The distance I was covering pales in comparison to Kiran's marathon run, but the whole thing was pretty pleasant. Sure, there was some blood, but it was far from the gush-fest I'd anticipated and there was no industrial clean-up operation once I got home.

READ MORE: Why Are Female Athletes Criticised For Developing a "Masculine" Physique?

The social media reaction to Kiran's freebleeding marathon suggested that our attitudes to menstruation aren't much more advanced than banishing a polluted woman to the edge of the village for five days or not letting her near a church. Both of those are still real things, with exiling menstruating women still considered totally legit in some places, and a fuck-tonne of crusty old men still defending the exclusion of women from ministry on the basis that they are ritually unclean (thanks a lot, Leviticus).

That's why Kiran's actions were so important in drawing attention to the way women are affected by period stigma. She told me that she thought a lot of people misunderstood the message of her marathon, getting the idea that she was trying to say tampons are oppressive and all women should freebleed. The reality for her is that freebleeding means prioritising your own comfort over the shame others have constructed around menstruation.

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"We live in a world where we can't talk about something that is so normal," she told me. "And the reason that we can't talk about it is because we are prioritising the comfort of men, and we have created a construct that's so disgusting around something so normal. The ramifications of that are so problematic for women's equality in our society that we must talk about it – the time is now.

"In the worst case scenario it's preventing women from going to school in developing countries and in the global north we are restricted to having only seen three innovations in women's periods in the last 500 years – a pad, a tampon, and a cup – because we can't talk about it. Is that oppressive? Yes. Is wearing a tampon oppressive? No."

Image via Kiran Gandhi on Instagram

On day two I decided to do some yoga in my bedroom, not because I was worried people would see my red sails flying in the sunset but because I refuse to get into a downward dog position in an environment where farting isn't encouraged. Whichever yoga video you choose online – from a basic Hatha to an ass-sweat inducing Bikram – your instructor will always tell you to "listen to your body". It felt really good to actually be able to do that while I was freebleeding. I've been doing yoga for about a year and I still find it incredibly painful. With all the contorting, balancing and stretching I thought there'd be menstrual blood coming out the yin yang, but it was a relatively calm affair.

Menstruation is always pitched as this awful inconvenience that we have to militantly arbitrate, but it's actually your body doing something powerful and important. I usually try to limit my awareness of what is going on with my cervix by regulating it with sanitary products, but it felt fucking great to pay attention to what my body was doing for once and to appreciate it for doing that. Plus it was way more comfortable going through the sun salutation without feeling a tampon lodged in my vagina.

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The sanitary products available are most commonly marketed to women in the context of period shaming. The focus is on keeping your flow discreet and secret to ensure you'll never have an embarrassing leak that could result in such all-consuming shame you may actually burst into flames. If we still have to use blue dye to signify menstrual clots on TV then general consensus seems to be that we aren't entirely chill about bleeding from the vagina being a normal bodily function.

READ MORE: Sexism Still Rules in British Football

Access to sanitary items is undoubtedly a privilege enjoyed by women in the developed world. Throughout my quest to exercise without riding the cotton pony I wrestled with the question of whether my voyage of self-discovery was a deplorable indication of my immense privilege. Freebleeding was only a fun and liberating idea for me because it was a choice I was making, and I was keenly aware that a lot of women don't have that choice because they're completely deprived of access to sanitary items.

Kiran didn't buy into that critique: "Honestly, it's one of the easiest criticisms used when people in the Western world try to do any sort of activism. I was born in an extremely privileged situation – I didn't choose that. But what I can choose is how I act on privilege. In my context, I know that if I run a marathon and bleed freely I won't be shot by the Taliban when I cross the finish line. Knowing that is a huge source of power. Whereas if I am in another context and I choose to freebleed the ramifications are so severe that I don't have the luxury of that choice."

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The heaviest day of my cycle arrived like a death knell and despite feeling like Carrie at the prom I'd made plans to play football. Being the only girl on a team full of lads is tricky enough without the fear that you're going to be playing with period blood running down your thighs. I wasn't playing with a big team this time, just having a kickabout in the park, but it was the first day I'd braved freebleeding in shorts, and in an environment where I already think people look at me like I'm a massive vagina in football boots. When I play with a menstrual cup in, I'm incredibly aware that I'm an interloper in a male-dominated group, and I get hyper-aware that it's going to shift or leak and everyone will realise I'm birthing a blood diamond.

Image via Kiran Gandhi on Instagram

When I was freebleeding this wasn't a concern – I knew, without question, that I was going to bleed. There were no concerns about what might go wrong because I'd made a choice about exactly what was going to happen. This time I bled through my underwear and there was a minor clean up operation when I got home, but nothing in the region of getting in from playing in a boggy field when your mum makes you get undressed on the back step before you're allowed in the house. It felt comfortable and way more purposeful in my own presence knowing that I was playing while my body was working out some shit that no one else's was.

As personal or political act, freebleeding is about making visual something that is hidden and stigmatised. Women are told to keep their periods secret to avoid the shame of being seen to be menstruating by others and it's part of a shaming culture that constructs menstruation as dirty and embarrassing. When I spoke to Kiran about our experiences, she expressed her frustrations that prioritising your own comfort over accepting the shame that others have placed on you is a radical notion.

"The second I realised that at a marathon my own shame was so internalised that I was putting the comfort of random bystanders [ahead of my own] when I had to run 26 miles… that's what made me want to freebleed even more," she said.

Freebleeding certainly isn't for everyone, and that's okay, but my week of parting the Red Sea did highlight just how deeply ingrained period stigma is in sport. Despite happening every month and holding the potential to seriously affect performance, women are still expected to pretend like the cramping, clotting and bloating don't exist. That's why Kiran's decision to freebleed during the London Marathon was so salient in showing that simply prioritising comfort above a patriarchal construct represents a revolutionary act.

Talking openly and honestly about menstruation is really fucking important, whether it's on the track, in the pool, or on centre court. In a society where we are more accustomed to sexualising sportswomen than hearing them talk about a visit from Aunt Flo we've got a very long way to go. Frank and open discussions are crucial to breaking down barriers and tackling period stigma, not just in sport but in every area of public life.

@EmiliaBona