Steph Houghton right to tackle period poverty on national TV, but women athletes deserve much more on the issue

Steph Houghton at End Period Poverty event playing football with Logann Knight, aged 14, in Dagenham
Steph Houghton at End Period Poverty event playing football with Logann Knight, aged 14, in Dagenham Credit: Doug Peters/PA Wire

Is it too optimistic to hope this might be a wake-up call? To watch England captain Steph Houghton discussing period poverty on national television, and the 31 per cent of girls lost to physical activity for want of proper sanitary protection, was to hear a call to arms that we all would do well to heed. This is a country, remember, where one in 10 girls between the ages of 14 and 21 in the UK have been unable to afford sanitary products. The bottom line is we all need to do better, and you wonder how many of those issues - the fact, for instance, that 49 per cent of girls have taken time off school when on their period - could be solved if more sports were willing to take menstruation seriously. 

This is not, actually, the first time Houghton has spoken about periods. In 2015, she and Lucy Bronze starred in a film series about puberty, two surrogate big sisters imparting advice that is worth heeding. It doesn’t matter if you use tampons or pads, says Houghton - it’s about whichever you’re comfortable with. Hear, hear. And then there is the best tip, from Bronze, on what to say to a boy if he steals a tampon from your bag. “Yes, that’s mine. Do you want to use it?” 

There follows reassurance from both that their periods have never stopped them from playing football, and you wonder how many of the teenage girls cycling through the contraceptive pill and the contraceptive implant and the contraceptive injection in a bid to ease crippling cramps have ever been told that premenstrual syndrome can be alleviated by exercise, that statistically women who don’t exercise regularly are more likely to have menstrual pain than those who do and that, for most women, the benefits of exercising before and during a period are numerous.

It is, again, decent advice. Ultimately neither can profess to have been reduced to tears by menstrual cramps if they’ve never experienced them, and in any case a video aimed at alleviating girls’ anxieties around periods is probably not the place to provide the same description as this BuzzFeed contributor: “It’s like someone glued and duct-taped the inner wall of my uterus and then started violently ripping it off.” 

Still, Bronze’s insistence that “all the female athletes playing must have their periods at some point but it doesn't seem to affect them at all” will come as a jolt to any woman who has spent a night awake, bent double biting into a pillow to relieve the pain of their cramps. It’s also not true, and how can it be, really, even if only from a common sense perspective, when so many physiological and psychological changes are taking place?

It’s been 14 years since Serena Williams revealed she was one of 13 million American women who suffer from menstrual migranes, by which point she had won seven Grand Slam titles and endyred five years of throbbing pain, ringing ears, nausea and dizziness. There were times, she recalls, when she was “just out of it”, adding: “you want to just crawl under your bed and stay there.” She went to see a doctor, who, brilliantly, told her: “There’s nothing really wrong with you - you just think there is when it gets to be that time of the month.” 

There are others. In 2009, Jelena Jankovic blamed her third round Wimbledon exit on “women’s problems”, dizziness and blurred vision leaving her wondering whether she needed an ambulance. "I was like a ghost - white in the face," Jankovic said. "I didn't know where I was.” Six years later, Heather Watson said “girl things” contributed to her Australian Open exit. 

Emma Hayes, the Chelsea Women manager, did not hold back in an interview with TalkSport in 2017: “It's a major physiological event that happens once a month for us, and it's hell. And you've got to try and perform while you're producing 8% more blood plasma, your neuromuscularskeletal system doesn't work, your reaction times are off, you want to binge on chocolate, you're gaining weight just by sitting down. There's a lot that happens.” 

Emma Hayes, Manager of Chelsea Credit: Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Hayes probably could go on. Women’s hips widen, affecting tendons, making accupuncture, for instance, painful. Oestrogen - a hormone released during menstruation - can increase joint flexibility, which may explain why the number of female footballers who have suffered ACL injuries is so high. But how can Bronze, whose own career beginnings were defined by successive knee injuries, know this inside out when research into periods and injuries only been taking place in the last decade?

Let that sink in - and then wonder if, honestly, it comes as a surprise. Periods affect 50% of the population, and happen between 300 and 400 times in a woman’s life. It’s as normal as breathing, and certainly you’d have about the same level of success if you tried to hold either in. But we have created a climate, over decades, in sport and wider society, where women are shamed into hiding their menstrual cycle and its effects. 

What, after all, is the main oppositions to menstrual leave, the offering of legalised time off for female employees whose symptoms are unbearable? It is, stupidly, how it will affect a woman’s standing in the workplace if she is seemingly unable to cope with a normal part of her life, and it is the same anxiety felt by working mothers - that need to prove beyond all doubt that “this doesn’t affect me - I can still do all the things you want me to!”  

By why is there a value judgement - about women’s place, their contribution in the workplace, their worth, their ability, their expertise - hinging upon how we respond to bleeding, constantly, from an orifice from a week? It’s even more ludicrous given the lack of research, and that the same voices sneering, ‘Is it that time of the month?’ will likely be so poorly-informed. Women will not speak about their periods for fear they will be told they are not competent. But how, then, can they demand better?

Top of the world: US Women's team Credit: Getty

Is this ‘keep calm and carry on’ approach responsible for that yawning lack of research? Have athletes not pushed and demanded - well, what they deserve? You instinctively doubt sportswomen, always in search of a marginal gain, have kept quiet out of embarrassment - but the research is in its early stages. Sport has, for decades, made assumptions about female bodies using research done on males. Male sports are often better-funded, with more financial support available for research. The feminist Caroline Criado-Perez summed it up best: “The female body is seem as the male body with some boobs tacked on.” 

Even the US women’s national team had a fairly scant sports science programme as recently as 2010, when the fitness coaches that pedalled their menstrual cycle performance programme arrived. Previously, players never spoke about their periods with coaches and support staff, but now USWNT coaches have detailed files on each players’ cycle and minimise performance impact through alterations to diet, sleeping habits and training loads. 

Houghton summed it up best when she implored schools and youth clubs to offer free sanitary protection: “Allow girls the opportunity to do what they want to do.” That’s it, isn’t it? All of this stuff has to be treatable. The science will catch up at some point, and there has to be an incentive inside women’s football for that to be the case. Put simply, we need to talk about periods, in all their bloody mess and glory. Until then, we are - even if unknowingly - failing whole generations of athletes.