After competing in the women's 4x100m medley relay on Sunday, Yuanhui told a journalist “I didn't swim well enough this time,” explaining, “because my period came yesterday, so I felt particularly tired – but this isn't a reason, I still didn't swim well enough.“
This was one small step for Yuanhui but a giant leap for womankind. Because this isn’t just a sporting taboo, it’s a straight up classic taboo. A too much information, keep it to yourself, don’t mention that in front of children, taboo.
And yet Yuanhui didn’t talk about her period as though she were making a bold, feminist statement. She treated the whole issue of menstruation as a mundane and unavoidable inconvenience. In her mind, it was a hurdle that made her already difficult task that much harder.
Yuanhui spoke about her menstrual cycle in the tone that most teenage girls would use when surreptitiously borrowing a tampon from their best friend midway through a geography lesson –“God, being forced to study tectonic activity is painful enough, but with these cramps I’m just about ready to take up truancy – got a tampon I can borrow?”
It is one thing whispering across a desk to a school friend or woman at work who you know well. Most of us have done this at least once. But to translate that candour into a public address to the world while representing one’s country is nothing short of a triumph. Keep your Olympic medals; Yuanhui deserves a huge gold, tampon-shaped trophy.
Because periods – after you get over the initial shock of the first one – are totally prosaic occurrences in the lives of most young women, and yet we still seem to find it difficult to openly discuss them as such. If a sanitary towel falls out of my bag, the period taboo means I have to turn the incident into some sort of political statement – “Yes, I bleed monthly, deal with it!” – though the whole business is so ordinary it feels like anything but.
That’s not to say that we should only address the treatment of female menstruation calmly. I am, personally, a massive fan of the idea of breaking into Westminster and leaving large, unsightly, brownish blood stains on every single seat in the House of Commons. I strongly advocate doing this monthly until sanitary products are free on the NHS.
So my point is not ‘don’t shout about your period’; please bellow away. (I find a good shout can often simultaneously mitigate cramps and help channel menstrual crabbiness.) But we should nevertheless feel very encouraged by the fact that Yuanhui didn’t feel the need to shout. She reminded us, without any pointed agenda, about the reality of periods: they might make things difficult, but they sure as hell don’t stop us.
For centuries, women have been securing wonderful achievements and never have they been able to say, “I nailed that job interview even though I felt like someone was taking the blood pressure of my womb.” But they should.
So we must all take a leaf out of Yuanhui’s book. Please, let’s forget about the patriarchal distaste for menstruation and mention our periods as casually and as frequently as we like. Let’s talk about them with family: “Could you make the birthday cake chocolate, Nan? I think I’m going to be on my period that day.” Let’s talk about them with partners: “Lay down the towels darling, I don’t want to stain the Egyptian cotton sheets.”
Most importantly, and as Yuanhui has shown us, let’s talk about periods publically, openly and without embarrassment.
I think it’s about time we amended the mantra that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels. From now on, let us say, “Women do everything men do, except once a month they do it while in pain with blood pouring out of their vaginas.”
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