Breaking the Silence: Female Athletes and Menstruation

Breaking the Silence: Female Athletes and Menstruation

Female athletes face numerous challenges, from intense training regimens to navigating the pressures of competition. Yet, there's one topic that often remains shrouded in silence: menstruation. Despite its profound impact on female athletes' performance and well-being, periods remain a taboo subject in sports culture. Menstruation is a natural and normal part of life for many women, but for female athletes, it can present unique challenges. The physical and hormonal changes that occur during the menstrual cycle can affect everything from energy levels and mood, to strength and endurance. Yet, many female athletes struggle in silence, facing stigma and shame surrounding their periods.  Ignoring the topic of menstruation in sports has real consequences for female athletes' health, well-being, and performance. By breaking the silence and opening up, we can improve performance, empower female athletes to prioritize their health, and by challenging taboos surrounding menstruation, we can create a more inclusive and supportive sports culture for all athletes.

Meg Mackenzie is a world-class ultra trail runner, coach, and Paradis Pro brand ambassador. Her experience as a female mountain sport athlete has led her to speak candidly about some of the unseen challenges women face and why visibility is important. May is National Menstrual Health Awareness month and as the premier underwear company for female athletes, we want to elevate Meg's story and do our part to support her effort to make this topic more mainstream. There is still work to be done to raise awareness around the physical changes and challenges that female athletes face on a monthly basis. Meg's story picks up below:

"Somehow I found myself standing up with a microphone in front of 50 of the best mountain athletes in the world talking about how I wanted to make a movie about women’s periods. 45 of them were men. The speakers who had stood up before me had all pitched projects involving skiing first descents, climbing dangerous mountains, or running in wild places. It was one of those moments where I might have had a slight out of body experience; how did I get to the point of talking into a microphone about my period in front of Alex Honnold? 

Let’s back up. The North Face athlete summits are, as the brand values, adventures. A disclaimer to start, I’m all for adventures. I’m all in for unknown, immersive nature experiences, venturing into wild places and roughing it. The tradition at these summits, however, is that athletes are not told anything about what or where we’re about to go.  This particular summit was in Iceland in November. Our packing list said to bring a tent and a warm sleeping bag. I immediately checked my period app on my phone and my spirits dropped when I realized I would be mid cycle over the trip. Would there be facilities? Were we going hiking somewhere wild? Would we be out for hours on end? What if I bled through and was in Iceland surrounded by famous dudes with whom I didn’t want to embarrass myself? 

I emailed my athlete manager to try and gather some more information. I didn’t tell him I was going to be on my period (who wants to know that?!), but I did ask if I could get some more details about the trip. He said no, insisting on sticking to tradition, so I packed every period product under the sun and crossed my fingers it would turn out ok. 

The outdoor industry is not made by or for people who menstruate. Or for women who go through puberty or menopause. My athlete manager wasn’t trying to be difficult, it just never crossed his mind that women might need more details about trips in isolated places. 

In the end, it wasn’t me who struggled with my period on that trip. Another female athlete tiptoed up to me at dinner one night and whispered, “hey, do you have a tampon?”  She had just started her period and had nothing out there. Happy to help, I whipped out a range of options from my bag.  She snuck one into her hand and disappeared into the bathroom, glancing around to see if anyone had noticed the exchange. We were acting like we were drug dealers. I made a joke about it to the rest of the table of women and my friend, Fanny Borgstrom, joked that instead of making a movie about skiing big lines and summiting mountains, we should make one about our periods. 

Thus, here I was, standing in front of everyone, explaining how this was actually a great idea and should get funding to be made into a film.  After everyone had pitched their idea, every athlete cast their vote for which idea should get funding. We won hands down. This result was validating, and implied that people want to know how to make the outdoor industry more inclusive. The North Face is a majority men's team and still, we tallied almost all the votes. We then spent the next 18 months talking to different athletes, experts and coaches from a range of sports, trying to make the best documentary possible.

During the making of the film, we spoke with women from all walks of life in the outdoor industry. Experts, nutritionists and scientists were guiding our anecdotes and explaining how and why our menstruation is so important. We interviewed alpine climbers, snowboarders, skiers, rock climbers, runners, surfers, and triathletes and found that our periods were mentioned in conversation more and more. We pulled together a full picture of the physical, mental, cultural and societal issues surrounding our menstrual cycles in elite sports.

When we first started filming the documentary I couldn’t say the word period without cringing, wincing a little or whispering it slightly. It was hard, at first, to talk openly, but as I opened up, others did too. That spiral of openness became what I wanted the film to be about. There is still so much shame wrapped up in our menstrual cycles. 

There is very much a hush-hush culture in all mountain sports when it comes to these issues. On a cultural level, it’s about not wanting to appear weak or incapable. At the end of the day, women run the same distances, compete for resources, climb the same heights, and carry the same gear, and we all feel pressure to keep up with the men. This is all doubly hard if you’re having really bad cramps and a heavy flow. It’s also challenging for athletes moving through menopause.

Culturally, sports reward strength, power, aggression and dominance. Sports do not celebrate cyclical beings who may feel mentally and physically off for a week every month. As women, we force our bodies and minds to constantly try to be at the top of our game, when in reality, our bodies are demanding that we take a step back when needed.

On a physical level, we learned that both climbers and runners have an additional layer of difficulty surrounding their periods. Both are power and endurance sports where weight matters. The lighter you are, the faster you’ll run or the easier you’ll climb up a wall.  Missing your period can be seen or internalized as a badge of honor. It can imply you’re training really hard, possibly losing weight, and sacrificing yourself for your sport. It can be seen as the ultimate dedication, and is a very dangerous path to go down. 

What I learned was that women want to talk. Men want to talk too. Everyone wants to know more and share more. Talking is a starting point, but we also need to focus on the research. Should women be training differently than men? What role do hormonal fluctuations have on training and competing? Should we carry the same compulsory gear and wear the same products? How do we rally brands and race organizers to have menstrual products at aid stations? How much is period poverty affecting women taking part in sports? Our menstrual cycles are closely linked with our athletic progression. As my teammate and friend Fanny says in the film, we really are the first generation of women to be professional athletes, so the research is still nascent. 

This story doesn’t yet have a happy ending. The day before the launch date in April 2023, we received an email from our funders telling us that for undisclosed reasons, the film would not be publicly released. We were heartbroken. We still managed to have a private showing of the film in London where 200 people attended, but after that, our rights to the film were taken away and despite fighting our case for over a year, we lost. I hope to find the right funders to make a new film with the knowledge I now have. I’m as passionate as ever about sharing these stories and spreading the message. If there’s one thing ultra running has taught me, it’s to be tenacious and to never give up."

We believe in working to normalize biological processes that are in fact, very normal for 50% of the population. The more we can normalize, the more we help athletes to be the healthiest version of themselves.  Thank you to Meg and to the thousands of athletes who are raising awareness.  It's time to break the silence surrounding menstruation in sports and start talking openly and honestly about this important topic. By challenging taboos, promoting education and awareness, and creating a supportive environment for female athletes, we can empower women to thrive both on and off the field. Period.

Did Meg's experience resonate with you? Share this story with a friend or colleague to further Meg's mission to bring visibility to topics in mountain sports that can be hush hush.