Let’s talk about something that every woman in sport knows.
That feeling where even though a few days ago you felt fit and ready to go, today you’re feeling exhausted. Sapped of your energy, lethargic. A stabbing pain in your stomach, an ache in your lower back. You wonder if you can complete this training session without feeling light headed. Maybe you’re feeling nauseous too. How you look and feel in your kit matters even more than usual today. How am I going to stay comfortable? What will people think about my bloated stomach? Am I wearing the right colours and layers to make sure there is no danger of the shameful exposure to the world that it is that time of the month? You’re thinking of the logistical questions too. Where, and when will a timely toilet break occur? Will there be the right facilities?
Periods are something which affect 49.58% of the world’s population. Every woman has or will experience the menstrual cycle, and will, on average, experience 400 periods in her lifetime.
This impacts sport in numerous ways, with 60% of respondents from the BBC’s Women’s Sport Survey in 2020 reporting that their performance was affected by their period.
Despite this being something which every woman knows and experiences, it's a taboo subject within the world of sport, and it is not adequately researched.
It is important that we engage with this: women, men, players, coaches, parents. Why? Because you, or any woman you know, will be affected by this and it can have a massive impact on sport as well as the rest of life.
Whilst the silence on this issue is only recently starting to break, which is a great thing for sport, the Bible has never been silent on this issue. In the Bible blood speaks. Let’s see what the issues are for women in sport, and then see how the Bible shows us that even periods can point us to far deeper realities.
Recently, a number of sports women have spoken out about the challenges which are faced by women every day.
England footballer Beth Mead recently revealed that the team had given feedback to their kit manufacturer, Nike, that wearing white shorts is a problem for women who fear coming on their period while wearing them. Similarly, Tammy Beaumont revealed that for England cricketers, “being on while wearing whites for a Test was quite a daunting prospect – there was an awful lot of anxiety around it.”
These include bloating, fatigue/ lethargy, cramps, lightheadedness and back pain. Whilst there is a wide spectrum as to how mild or severe these symptoms can be, “only around 10 percent of women glide through their periods with no discomfort at all. The rest all have some form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS).” Indeed, 84% of people suffer cramps and aches. Just last week Dina Asher-Smith pulled up in the European Athletics Championships 100m final due to calf cramps brought on by her period.
A woman on her period will be needing to know when and where she can change her period protection while she is training or competing. Often this is not taken into account by coaches, and many venues can lack appropriate facilities - perhaps with a lack of toilets nearby or an absence of sanitary bins.
These things can all affect performance, both due to physical symptoms and because of the concern or anxiety that can come along with it.
It can also affect participation in sport. An Adidas survey from 2021 reported one in four girls dropped out of sport in adolescence, with fear of period leakage a key reason.
Another thing which is important to mention is the impact that sport can have on periods. Whilst people might not enjoy talking about it, it is important to monitor the menstrual cycle as it is an indicator of the body functioning healthily. Dr Emma Ross (former Head of Physiology at the English Institute of Sport) writes: “often, the first thing that gets disrupted if the balance of your life is too stressful or you’re not eating right is that you lose your period.” The Dutch footballer Emma Coolenrevealed that she did not have her period for nine months due to the intensity of training and a difficult relationship with food. Whilst it may feel like a positive thing to miss your periods it is a sign that something may be seriously wrong with your training, diet, or something else. It's important to see a doctor as soon as possible if you are missing periods, as well as letting coaches, parents or others involved in your sport know.
We have seen something of how a woman’s menstrual cycle is a regular part of her sporting life and some of the effects it can have.
Given how big an issue this is, why is this so little talked about? Why is there so little understanding and knowledge in the world of sport about how to help a woman get the best out of her performance according to the menstrual cycle?
This is another example of the gender data gap. Baz Moffat from The Well HQ writes that “there’s nowhere near enough ‘best-practice’ in women’s health. And it’s no wonder, typically just 6% of sports science research is conducted exclusively on women.”
Also, a major issue is the stigma and the shame surrounding periods. One writer said, “Isn’t the real problem rooted in society, when the fear of coming on your period is such an excruciating thought given the shame and stigma attached to something that is so natural?”
There are a growing number of people and organisations (see below) who are trying to overcome this stigma and taking really positive steps forward. Through developing resources to help women and coaches understand the female body and menstrual cycle, better, healthier, training plans can be developed. And more importantly, by regularly bringing periods into the conversation about training, the stigma and shame around them can start to be removed, periods can be celebrated as something natural.
There are an increasing number of voices speaking into this issue. But what about God’s voice? Does His Word shed any light on this? As Christians we believe that God’s word is a powerful truth, and is as useful today as it has ever been, so we can go to the Bible first when approaching difficult issues. There are hard truths but also incredible news, as the Bible shows us that even periods can point us to deep, wonderful, spiritual realities.
So what difference does being a Christian make to thinking about female sportspeople and their periods?
It is worth affirming in the first place that God cares about women. God sees what we go through and understands our bodies far more than we do. He made us in His image (Genesis 1:27) and has given us bodies which can run and jump and catch and throw. We are born to play too. So the gender data gap matters. The female body matters. Women in sport matter.
Periods don’t tend to be something that we rejoice in. But when we stop to try and comprehend what is going on in the menstrual cycle, we can marvel at the wonder of the human body. There is not space for description here, but Rachel Jones, author of the brilliant recent book A Brief Theology of Periods (yes, really), writes:
“My menstrual cycle is a finely tuned, intricately balanced system featuring hormones that work in harmony as they rise and fall, stop things and start things, and “talk” to each other… all without me having to tell them to. My ovary doesn’t wait for a conscious order before it gets cracking on next month’s egg. It’s doing its thing, month after month, approximately 400-500 times in my lifetime, largely unbeknownst to me. It is, frankly, remarkable.”
The menstrual cycle is this incredible process which ultimately enables a woman to conceive and grow and carry a child! The female body is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139), and points to the hand of a Designer - a good, creator God. Jones again writes,
“Women’s bodies have been built with the God-given ability to bring new life into the world - to take part in his creation as we “create” new humans in his image. It’s almost as though that cosmic “stage” on which God choreographed the marvel of Genesis 1 has been shrunk down into our wombs, where the miracle happens in micro.”
Take the time to learn about the menstrual cycle, gain some understanding of what’s going on. Yes, doing so will help you understand yourself and others better and perhaps improve performance. But more than that, let it point you to an awesome creator God, the giver of life who made you and knows every part of you.
But that’s not the whole story, we know that. If periods are so good and wondrous, why do they bring so much pain? Not only physically, but also emotionally as it can be a monthly reminder that the miracle of new life is not occurring in your womb.
There are no easy answers, but while periods can point us to a good Designer, they also remind us vividly that we are living in a broken world. When human beings rebelled against God, the consequences of that fractured every single thing in creation - including a woman’s body. That is why there is discomfort and pain, that is why there is unfulfilled desire, that is why there is deep disappointment. Periods remind us that our world is lost and we desperately need help.
Isn’t the Bible to blame for much of the shame surrounding menstruation? According to Leviticus, a woman (and everyone she touches and anything she sits or lies on) is considered “unclean” when she is on her period (Leviticus 15:19-31). What do we do with that?
Well first we can be reassured that these parts of the Old Testament are no longer binding for Christians. And though it is very difficult to understand and to take in, there is still something we can learn from them.
In the Old Testament, God gave His chosen people a whole bunch of laws about what makes a person unclean, and therefore unable to come near a holy God. These rules can seem very confusing and overwhelming, particularly to a modern reader, but they are not arbitrary. Rather, they are a picture of a much bigger reality. It reminds us that none of us are worthy to come near a holy God, but that sin pervades our hearts, minds, and every part of our lives. We are spiritually unclean.
Now, no matter how positive about periods you are, no one can deny that they are messy. This can remind us of the mess of our hearts. To be clear, this does not mean that a woman’s period is something to be ashamed of. But it can remind us that we are fallen, spiritually unclean human beings, who are desperately in need of a Saviour.
Blood reminds us of brokenness. It reminds us of our shame before God. It reminds us that we are crying out for a Saviour.
And what a Saviour there is.
One who does not shun women whether or not they are on their periods. One who was willing to break the ceremonial laws when a bleeding woman came to Him for help. When she touched him, he did not turn her away as the Law required, but called her "daughter." He was willing to be made “unclean” so that she could be “clean” on the inside and out (Mark 5:25-34).
One who knows what it is to bleed. One who shed His own blood for our guilt and shame and whose wounds cry out that we are forgiven. One whose blood washes us clean so that we can wear white robes and finally be spiritually clean, unblemished in every way. And bleed no more. (Revelation 7:9, 14)
“Blood speaks…our periods speak both of curse and blessing, of groaning and gift, of pain and beauty, of Abel and Christ, of sin and salvation. They are, in a way, a jarring picture of what it means to live in a mixed-up world on its way to redemption. But one day the first part of each of those pairs will be taken away, and we’ll be left only with the second; one day heaven will meet earth in the new creation, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Revelation 21:4). Life in a woman’s body might sometimes make us weep; but from that day onwards, our tears will turn to joy.”
So what do we do with this? How does this theology help us to think about periods in sport?
Women in sport matter. So let’s keep calling for more research, let’s get clued up ourselves, so that more women can participate, and stay, in sport, being equipped to perform to the best of their God-given ability.
Let’s care for women in sport. Yes, women are gifted, they are talented, and we want to see how good they can really be. But this cannot be at the expense of their health. Abnormal menstruation is a sign that something is not right and needs to be addressed, whether that is volume of training, inadequate nutrition, or something else.
Let periods point you to the Gospel. An amazing biological process pointing you to an amazing creator God. Blood which cries out that we, all of us, are in need of a Saviour. Blood which points us to the broken, bleeding Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and is preparing a place for us where we will bleed no more.
Rosie is at St Mary's Church Basingstoke and an ultimate frisbee Player.
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