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Three-time Olympian Hannah Miley wants to banish dangerous euphemisms for periods that could leave young athletes feeling “dirty” or ashamed.
A study by period and pregnancy tracker app Clue and the International Women’s Health Coalition uncovered over 5,000 alternative terms for the monthly cycle across 10 different languages – yet conversations around the topic still remain taboo.
Miley finds when those rare discussions do happen, they are filled with unhelpful metaphors that recall adverts featuring blue liquid poured on pads and overjoyed women wearing all-white outfits.
“It all comes back to that simple word of just saying ‘period’,” said the swimmer, who competed at Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016.
“A lot of people struggle to say it. It’s ‘shark week’, ‘leak week’ so many different words. The fact that we couldn’t even say ‘period products’, it was hygiene, sanitary products – that in and of itself creates that invisible barrier of being able to talk about it.
“If you can’t say the word, then how can you actually talk about the topic?
“It’s just a very deep-rooted societal view that they’re dirty, they’re inconvenient, you’re emotional, you’re not in control of your body and you’re weak.
“In sport there’s a great advocacy in the sense that we can prove female athletes can be strong, we can prove that female athletes can be in control of their emotions, but it’s making sure that these athletes remain healthy.”
Some of the euphemisms on the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health’s exhaustive list include “the communists have invaded the summer house” and “get the crime scene tape”.
There’s also the classic, “mother nature’s gift”, which as Miley distinctly recalls featured in a 2009 print advert campaign for Tampax starring Serena Williams.
The series sets up Mother Nature – portrayed as a sort of stern schoolmarm-slash-Stepford Wife – against the 23-time Grand Slam winner.
In one, Williams smashes a ball through Mother Nature’s (literal) gift box, while another reads “Mother Nature has met her match”.
It’s the sort of outdated antagonistic attitude Miley is hoping to change through her work with UK Coaching’s Duty to Care campaign, which is providing support and resources for participants who want to better understand the way menstrual cycles affect athletes – and not just negatively.
A regular cycle is an indicator of health. It’s like a report card
The double Commonwealth Games champion said: “A regular cycle is an indicator of health. It’s like a report card. Also being on your period, there is a benefit in cognitive function, being able to learn new skills.
“It’s all about that management strategy. Pain tolerance has increased, so whilst your oestrogen and progesterone levels are lower, your testosterone is higher, so the ability for strength and power is actually really good.”
A May 2023 Project RED-S survey of 159 elite, junior and senior athletes in Britain revealed significantly more respondents received menstrual health education and support from social media (57 per cent) than coaches (6.9 per cent).
Miley is adamant that needs to change and hopes more information and research will not just eliminate awkwardness between coaches and athletes, but actually inspire tailored training and open dialogue beyond elite level.
She added: “It all comes back to being able to read and understand your body. It’s not something you’re taught in school.
“It’s the basics of you’re on your period, you’re not pregnant. You’re not on your period, you’re pregnant.”
“But there’s so much more to it, the ability to track, understanding the peak and flow, working with your body to prime important training types, being able to map and plan it.”
“That’s why it’s so important for coaches to be on board with this, so they can help their athletes reach their full potential, so that the person who is menstruating to get the most out of their sport, but not come away from it broken and damaged, so they can have as long a career as they want to.”
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