Blood, sweat & no fears?

Dreaded, unmentionable and affecting our fitness…

… the shocking results of a new survey into periods and sport

How do periods affect women’s participation in sport?

2019 has been an unprecedented year for women in sport, with the Women’s FIFA World Cup attracting record TV audiences. However, a shocking new survey from FabLittleBag reveals that for many women, periods remain a significant stumbling block to full sports participation. Moreover, the excellent help that is available is not being accessed due to the persisting stigma around menstruation.

175 women responded to the survey with their personal insights. The survey reveals that periods remain an awkward topic to bring into the open:

  • 59% of respondents said that they would rather invent an excuse than admit that their issue was period-related.
  • 68% felt that they could not discuss periods openly with sports coaches, gym staff or even team-mates.

Periods remain a difficult time of the month for many respondents:

  • 72% of respondents said that they really dreaded them or considered them a “necessary evil”.
  • Only 3% said that their periods were “not a problem”.

Given these answers, it is perhaps not surprising that participation in sports is affected during menstruation:

  • Over half of respondents (55%) said that they usually slow down or stop playing sports during their periods.
  • 35% said that they performed worse competitively during their periods, with only 4% saying that it didn’t affect their performance.

It is clear that the changing rooms at gyms and sports facilities are not always well equipped for menstruating women:

  • 68% of respondents felt that the facilities were a bit hit and miss, with no loo roll, no soap and a smelly sanitary bin

This would do little to encourage women to be more active during their periods. But the difficulty does not stop there:

  • 61% of women say that they have had an awkward experience when playing sport or exercise.

Personal stories

For those who shared their personal stories, leaking is the most common problem, but this is particularly compounded by the stigma around periods, with women feeling unable to state their needs. Comments include,

  • “In the gym I bled onto my clothing, which some guys at the gym took great delight at pointing out very loudly”.
  • “I had started a netball game and suddenly was doubled over in pain from my period starting out of the blue. I ran off the court without even acknowledging the umpire or my team mates and sat on the toilet until my mum came to pick me up! I told my team mates I had food poisoning which I’m not sure was better to say!!!!”

Male coaches aren’t aware of the issues:

  • “Bled through my white shorts on a rowing camp because our coach made us do extra training and wouldn’t give us a toilet break”.
  • “I started my period unexpectedly while doing a swim gym test with a male pe teacher who could/would not understand my need to stop the test and go to the changing room”.

Facilities are inadequate:

  • “At the end of the 10 mile race, the nearest toilet facilities were nearly 2 miles away and my period had started to show through my clothes”.
  • “The gym doesn’t have a tampon machine so I had to leave”.
  • “having to shower in a changing room with no cubicles just made me feel embarrassed having the string dangling between my legs!!”

Periods are limiting participation:

  • “The worst one though was during yoga, I had a serious leak all down the inside of my leg. Was too embarrassed to go back again so found a new studio. Now I never go when I’m on just in case”.

Difficulty with sports clothing is a recurrent theme, with people mentioning difficulty with dance leotards, white martial arts suits and revealing cycling shorts:

  • “I play tennis, insisting on all white clothing when you are worried about leaking means we often wear more than one pair of underwear, and double sanitary protection as well. The “whites” rule/tradition is sexist!

Martha Silcott, the inventor of FabLittleBag and creator of the survey, says,

“We launched the Blood, Sweat and No Fears campaign to raise awareness of the important issue of how periods impact sports participation. Having had hundreds of conversations with women about periods it became obvious that many women still felt there was a taboo around menstruating.

“It is clear that more needs to be done to encourage women to participate fully in sports. The inspiring sportswomen that we’ve been watching this summer show what is possible. It is a tragedy that a significant proportion of women are held back unnecessarily, be it through a lack of facilities or understanding by coaches. Sports and fitness are essential to our physical and mental wellbeing and the obstacles could easily be overcome with a little openness and understanding.

“I developed FabLittleBag to allow women to dispose of their tampons and pads with confidence. We hope that this survey will encourage gyms, sports centres and sports clubs to raise their game to ensure women have the changing room facilities they need, all month long”.

Expert comment

The Blood, Sweat and No Fears campaign is supported by gynaecologists, champion athletes and many organisations including Sport England, This Girl Can, Women in Fitness Association, Exercise Movement Dance, Community Fitness Network, Women’s Rugby, Women’s Sport Trust, Network She, Equality FC and Anytime Gyms.

Gynaecologist Dr Anita Mitra, aka Gynae Geek, comments,

“Exercise and sport can be great for boosting your health, wellbeing and confidence. But for some people their period can be a real barrier to this. Concerns about leaking, pain, and generally whether it’s safe are common concerns that my patients voice. I really welcome this campaign so that we can get everyone talking, and help empower them to live their lives the way they wish, period or no period.”

Adelle Tracey, the British middle-distance runner, says,

“My roommate and I were most impressed with the FabLittleBags in our room during the prep for Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast. When preparing for a championship you can be sharing a room for good couple of weeks and it’s inevitable at least one of you is going to be on a period…

“Blood, Sweat and No Fears is a great platform for people to acknowledge and discuss a ‘taboo’ subject. It needs normalizing as it affects so many sporting individuals!”

Ama Agbeze MBE, former England netball captain, says,

“Being on your period is a pain – sometimes literally. It’s a worry in games that you might have an accident which could end up visible to everyone. I’ve had those horrifying day dreams and I know plenty of others who have too.

“Sometimes on your period you just want to crawl up and have a bed day. There shouldn’t have to be a period every month when we struggle (and I don’t mean those days before pay day)!

“I’m also sure lots of people have experienced being on their period and used the bathroom as a guest somewhere, and faced the issue of there not being a bin to dispose of used sanitary items.  FabLittleBag is a great solution; and now the only thing to remember is to pack your FabLittleBags alongside your sanitary products of choice”.

Kate Dale of Sport England adds,

“It’s astounding that there are still so many taboos surrounding periods – half the world’s population have them for a large part of their life. This squeamishness can stop us taking part in the things that actually make us feel physically and mentally better. I’m delighted to back the Blood, Sweat and No Fears campaign – physical activity is so life enhancing, I don’t want women and girls to feel they have to drop out every month. Sharing our fears and discussing the logistics will really help to feel normal about something that is completely, well, normal”.

Morgan Hills-Adetoye of the Women in Fitness Association says,

“Blood Sweat and No Fears is an important campaign to WIFA because as an all-female based fitness association, we empower women to be authentically themselves. Menstruation should not hold women back from being a doing whatever it is that they want. FabLittleBag is a great organisation that is not only helping the environment but helping women as well.”

Clare Mannion of the Community Fitness Network says,

“Community Fitness Network are proud to support the FabLittleBag, Blood Sweat and No Fears campaign.  One of our main goals is to increase participation in community fitness and we understand that for women, menstruation can be a major barrier to this.  We believe that promoting more conversations throughout fitness communities everywhere and increased awareness of what can help women at this time, participation in activity needn’t be affected”.

Crossbench peer Baroness Young of Hornsey is cheering on the initiative, saying,

“If only such support had been available when I was younger and needed it! It seems extraordinary to me that it’s taken until the 21st century to get this out in the open. All credit to Martha and FabLittleBag for launching this campaign. Let’s support each other, and learn to love our bodily functions – a brilliantly simple idea!’

About FabLittleBag

FabLittleBag Subscription

FabLittleBag is a patented disposal bag for tampons and pads. It has unique loops so it can be opened with just one hand. It is biodegradable (breaking down to organic matter within 5 years), opaque and seals closed. It was invented to prevent the ocean pollution caused by flushed tampons, pads and other sanitary waste such as wipes and condoms.

60% of women in the UK dispose of tampons by flushing, but many are reluctant to switch to binning due to dislike of the process. An estimated 2.5m tampons, 1.4m pads and 700k pantyliners are flushed in the UK alone, every day. In a major trial, 97% of flushers converted to binning after trying FabLittleBag, saving the oceans from pollution from sanitary waste.

FabLittleBag costs from £2.99 and is sold at Ocado, Amazon and fablittlebag.com

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