When triathlete Emma Pallant-Browne crossed the finish line in fourth place at the PTO European Open in May — after passing 12 women on the run — she was elated. But when she shared photos of the event in which her menstrual blood could be seen through her swimsuit, she was called out for posting an image that was "not flattering". In a powerful rebuttal she dismissed this as something she should feel self-conscious about:
"If you wrote to me saying 99% of the women you know would be mortified at this then that is exactly why I am sharing this, because there really is nothing wrong."
The shame surrounding menstruation is still alive and well in the world of sport, with the embarrassment directed straight at the competitors. Strict rules governing what athletes can wear across a range of professional sports (and, in many cases, the need to wear white shorts) put the burden of avoiding the shame of blood stains on athletes who menstruate.
Thankfully in recent months major sporting bodies have begun to ease up on their kit rules. In November last year, the All England Lawn Tennis Club announced that, for the first time, players would be allowed to wear dark undershorts while playing at Wimbledon. This rule change came into play for the first time at this year’s July tournament. In March it was announced that the Irish women's rugby team would be wearing navy shorts for the Women’s Six Nations. And in April this year, the national football teams of New Zealand and England announced they were ending their use of white shorts, while the kit produced by Nike for 13 nations (including the USA, Australia and Brazil) in the Women’s World Cup incorporates technology to prevent period leaks.
File all of this under 'should have happened a long time ago'. After all, women and people with wombs have been playing sports forever. So with the Women’s World Cup 2023 well underway, one question remains: Why did it take so long for mainstream brands and sports bodies to catch on?
Some credit goes to the well-intentioned (if imperfect) period positivity that we’ve experienced over the last decade or so. During this era, far more information about menstruation became available. Taboos surrounding the discussion of periods began to fall away, which contributed to the increased popularity of cycle syncing — the act of tracking what phase of your menstrual cycle you are in and tailoring your exercise in response.
The variety of menstrual products available to consumers has dramatically increased in the last decade, according to those who monitor trends in the consumer space. Deanna Middleton, design strategist at the creative agency The Digital Fairy, explains: "In the mid 2010s we saw a boom in period activism and innovation, and investment in FemTech startups was at an all-time high, injecting much-needed funds into a category that had seen little innovation for decades."
This specifically led to innovations in 'period-proof' underwear and clothing that can absorb and hold menstrual blood without any risk of leaking or interfering with the wearer's day-to-day activities. "From a product perspective, period-proof underwear and clothing has been pioneered by smaller startup brands like WUKA, Daye and Hey Girls," Middleton explains. These material innovations, she adds, are ones that "the big sportswear brands would have been closely watching, so they can develop their own technology and stay competitive in the market".
We are now seeing the results of commercial brands developing their own technology. In 2021 Adidas was the first major sports brand to produce period-proof leggings and bike shorts, while this year Puma teamed up with independent Aussie period underwear brand Modibodi to create super absorbent and leak-proof bike shorts, leggings, underwear and active shorts. With its roll-out of the 2023 football kits for 13 national women’s teams, Nike is the first brand to explicitly incorporate period-proofing technology into major sporting kits, integrating its proprietary absorbent liners into its football shorts. Katie Devlin, assistant fashion trends editor at trend forecaster Stylus, explains: "It’s all about making activewear as accessible and functional as possible for players with periods, allowing them to focus on their performance instead."
Olivia Houghton, deputy creative foresight editor and beauty and wellness lead at strategic foresight agency The Future Laboratory, explains: "Nike’s research focused on ensuring the shorts offer more protection to women and other individuals wearing tampons, pads or cups. Its proprietary material technology combines two-layered, laminated pieces of material that absorb, wick and hold the blood." When Refinery29 reached out to Nike to ask why these products only appeared in 2023, the brand directed us to its press releases about the launch.
There is big business in making sports kits more inclusive, especially after the COVID pandemic, which led to what CNN reported as an "athleisure boom". Katie says this shift has led to "an increased emphasis on making activewear more inclusive and catering to the many diverse needs of the modern activewear consumer, and that’s not a one-size-fits-all mould".
The increase in visibility of women’s sports on the public stage has shone a spotlight on the importance of these changes for athletes. Vanessa Smith and Francesca Hansen, founders of the period sportswear brand Iceni, explain that this is a shift they’ve noticed in the industry. "I think the shift has been massively spurred on by sportspeople having more open conversations around the effects of periods on performance," says Smith. "The challenges of certain types of kit have also been brought to the forefront, which has meant that female specialist sports kit is finally being valued and recognised."
As ever, the larger reason behind the shift is profitability.
"A crude but important consequence of that is that mainstream brands are finally seeing female kit as commercially viable," Smith adds, "which has led to the surge of products we’re now seeing from some of those bigger names."
Hansen adds that this shift is also linked to the athletes themselves speaking up on these issues. This includes American alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin, who mocked the stigma around talking about periods at the beginning of this year; British Olympic champion Jessica Ennis-Hill, who said she couldn’t celebrate winning one heptathlon for fear that her period was visible; and England footballer Beth Mead, who led the feedback about the team's kit to Nike. "These changes have definitely been athlete-led, which is both a good and a bad thing. Good, because the athlete's voice has become too overwhelming to overlook, but poor that these changes haven’t come from the top down. Instead it’s been a case that questions and external pressure grew to the point where it could no longer be ignored."
So what’s next?
While these are needed and welcome changes, there is still much more left to do. Adaptable and functional sportswear is just the start.
Stigma surrounding periods still exists and is impacting athletes’ health, with reports of over a third of athletes ignoring a missed period, which can be a symptom of RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport), a condition that leads to disordered eating, deteriorating bone density, irritability, recurring injuries and gastrointestinal issues. Research is starting to take place into how athletes can train with, rather than against, their menstrual cycles. The US women’s football team attribute their 2019 World Cup win to tracking their cycles and shaping training around what stage an athlete was at in her cycle. But there are still more questions to answer.
The truth is that not being frank about periods is holding potential athletes back. According to research by Modibodi and Puma, one in two teen girls skip sport because of their period, while three out of five skip sport because they’re afraid of leaking. The addition of period wear to sports gear may feel like an easy win for sports brands but they need to ensure these offerings live up to the quality of the rest of their products so that all athletes, from teen girls to world-class competitors, can focus on the sport at hand. That means not just refusing to compromise on quality but also investing in research into periods and sports and continuing to disrupt the persistent taboo around periods.