Despite the fact that roughly half of all the people alive on our planet menstruate, periods remain — for some inexplicable reason — taboo. A huge amount of stigma surrounding them persists: Stigma against periods in general, stigma against talking about periods, stigma against cramps and other period-related pain… the list goes on. That’s why British athlete Jazmin Sawyers’ tweet about her period — specifically about how she had to drop out of a recent competition because of it — is so refreshing and necessary: It breaks down a ton of those stigmas, bringing to light an important conversation that isn't had nearly often enough.
Sawyers is a true renaissance woman. Born on May 24, 1994, she began gymnastics as a child before taking up the long jump and the high jump; over the course of her career, she’s won (among others) silver medals for the long jump in both the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the 2016 European Championships. She has also competed as a bobsledder and heptathlete, as well as in Series 6 of The Voice UK as a singer.
On June 4, Sawyers was meant to compete in the Adidas Boost Boston Games in Boston, Mass. — but she ended up needing to pull out at the last minute due to severe period pain. “About an hour before I was supposed to leave for the track I came on my period — I get VERY bad periods for the first 1-2 days,” she wrote in her tweet about the experience on June 5. “Can’t walk, intense pain radiating down my legs, head spinning, full body sweating, shouting, crying kind of bad.” It’s something she says she experiences pretty much every month, and it can have some serious consequences: “Last month I almost missed a flight because I couldn’t drive with the pain, and last year I was only able to compete in the qualifications round of the Olympics due to a whole load of painkillers, and still felt awful,” she wrote.
I sadly had to pull out of the competition here in Boston yesterday - I'm fine, and will be jumping in Oslo next week, but give this a read pic.twitter.com/go810aSM0V— Jazmin Sawyers (@JazminSawyers) June 5, 2017
And it’s frustrating to her on so many levels. On the one hand, said Sawyers, “If you don’t have periods or don’t have them this bad, it’s hard to imagine why I can’t just suck it up and compete, but when you’re in so much pain you can’t walk more than a few steps, and your legs buckle under your own weight, there’s no chance you can jump.” But, she also noted, it’s equally frustrating “when a few days later, sometimes the next day or even hours on, you’re back to feeling fine, because this is ‘normal.’”
I’m not an Olympic-level athlete, but I’m nodding my head furiously in agreement with so much of Sawyers' tweet. When I was on the pill, sometimes — not every time, but often enough for it to be a problem — the first day of my period would be awful. It typically manifested as something that felt like the worst hangover you’ve ever had, except without the whole getting drunk first thing. I’d constantly feel dehydrated, no matter how much water I drank; my head pounded, no matter how much ibuprofen I took; and sometimes the cramps were so bad that all I had the energy to do was lie down with a heating pad on my stomach.
While my periods had always been on the heavy side, I had never experienced this kind of pain during it before I went on the pill. What’s more, I am very, very aware of the fact that what I experienced was small potatoes compared to what a lot of other people who menstruate do. Even so, though, it was frequently difficult to function during it — and because of my schedule at the time, I often didn’t have the option of taking a sick day to ride it out.
The issues stopped once I switched birth control methods, so in my case, they were clearly tied to the pill and therefore easily solved. But for many, that’s not the case. One of the hallmarks of endometriosis, for example, is incredibly long, heavy, painful periods; according to the Endometriosis Foundation of America, the condition affects 176 million menstruating people worldwide, and one in 10 in the United States, meaning that there are a lot of menstruating people who suffer from debilitating periods on a regular basis because of something over which they have no control. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), too, can also be a cause of painful periods; it affects between two and 10 percent of menstruating people. No matter what's causing it, though, the pain is palpable: According to University College London professor of reproductive health John Guillebaud, speaking to Quartz, patients have described it as "almost as bad as having a heart attack."
And yet, the myth persists that severe menstrual pain is “all in our heads” — a myth that’s largely perpetuated by cisgender men. Indeed, doctors still don’t have a solid idea of what causes period pain, and attempts to fund research looking into it are often turned down because, as one researcher was told, period cramps are believed by many to be “merely a product of our society or culture that has painted a natural process in a negative light and that, given its monthly predictability, leads to suffering through anticipation." (That's an actual grant rejection letter, by the way.)
What’s more, we’re often told that periods aren’t something we should talk about in “polite company” (whatever the heck that means) — but we should, which is exactly what Sawyers is getting at in her tweet. She began her message by writing, “I wasn’t going to give an explanation online about why I pulled out of yesterday’s competition but this is something that isn’t talked about enough in sport, and it ought to be”; additionally, she concluded, “We discuss injuries and illness openly, but this is something we don’t talk about and I wanted to put it out there because I’m sure there are other young athletes dealing with it.” And she’s absolutely right: Periods aren’t talked about enough in the athletic world — or in the world at large — and they should be. Period pain and those who experience it deserve to have their experiences acknowledged, not brushed aside.
Sawyers isn’t the only athlete to have spoken recently about how periods can affect performance; she's in good company. Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui commented after her team came in fourth place in the 4x100-meter relay at Rio last summer, “Actually, my period started last night. So I’m feeling pretty weak and really tired.” Additionally, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman recently told Cosmopolitan about competing on her period, “Some months, I literally feel like I can’t get out of bed.” All of this is important — important to acknowledge, and important to believe.
Because it’s Sawyers’ last line that’s perhaps the most poignant: “I believe you when you say how bad it is — you’re not alone.”