She said: Periods should not be dismissed as a ‘ladies’ problem’

Neha Aggarwal
neha aggarwal tennis player, women in sports, menstrual health sportswomen, indian express opinions

Aggarwal says that at Olympic Gold Quest, an organisation working with Indian sportspersons, she consciously talks to junior athletes about menstrual health

Neha Aggarwal

I was 14 when I attended my first senior national camp. It was in May 2004 in Patiala, under a foreign coach assigned for the Indian table tennis team. An endurance session was scheduled for Saturday morning — we were instructed to run at our best speed for 50 minutes.

I was determined to beat my seniors. At the same time, I was not sure if I should even run because I was on my first day of periods. But I did not want to make excuses as it was my first senior camp. So, I ran. My body wanted to give up after 15 minutes itself, but my mind did not. I kept thinking, ‘I hope I have not stained myself’.

By the time I finished, I felt like throwing up. That evening, I just lay in bed in pain. I did not know if it was even advisable to have such strenuous workouts during periods. I remained unaware of this for the next one-two years until I realised that as athletes, you just have to do it. There is no other way around it.

Because we were always surrounded by men, we never spoke about menstrual health and the issues we faced during periods. Consequently, nobody took the initiative to educate us, and as athletes, we did not know that this issue was directly related to performance. Each month, the mind took precedence over the body. Since then, I have done some heavy workouts, played some of the best matches of my life on my periods and it was completely “normal”.

So I was taken aback when I read about recent research, which revealed that an alarming number of Indian athletes miss their periods and are deficient in iron, putting them at risk of career-threatening injuries as well as long-term health consequences. It is an important finding and hopefully, will trigger conversations on this topic because right now, there is absolutely no dialogue.

The word period was such a taboo that coaches called it “ladies’ problem” — the term itself is so negative. I got along well with my coach but when I had my periods, I just told him, “I'm tired”. We never got into the details. Because of the lack of conversation, everything was up in the air.

You have to deal with practical problems and also some myths. Like we were always told to not lift weights during periods. So how do weightlifters go about their training? As athletes, we did not know if we were supposed to do core or abs workout while menstruating. But we did because we wondered what if the periods coincided with match day!

Dealing with periods was as much about mental stress as about the physical strain. You have to deal with mood swings, and are constantly worried if you are stained. If you are in the middle of a two-hour session and cannot take a long break to change, you’re just thinking, ‘Do I have a stain?’ Ultimately, it affects the way you train. And you are asking your teammates to check —this conversation used to happen all the time.

When the dates of important tournaments were declared, I would first figure out if my period dates were clashing. That way, I could stay prepared as most of the venues, especially in India, didn’t have good washrooms and you had to worry about simple things like disposal. While travelling, be it in India or abroad, I would always carry four things with me — polythenes, newspapers, hand wash and perfume.

Eventually, it stops being a big deal because you just grow up with these things. But when I look back, I wonder if there would have been a difference in my performance if conscious efforts had been made to help us recover better during periods. There were so many women athletes I know who took pills to delay their periods. Maybe regular testing, monitoring of periods and a specific nutritional plan could have helped them.

In my current role at Olympic Gold Quest, I deal with some of India’s top junior and senior athletes. I notice the same problems that I faced 10 years ago. We make a very conscious effort to talk to the junior athletes about it, educate them and take care on the nutrition front. But a lot more needs to be done.

These days, we have seen improvement in other sectors — you see some corporate offices and airports keeping sanitary pad dispensers. But that practice isn’t followed in sports. I have not seen it at any international tournament either.

A huge change in cultural mindset is required. Even in our everyday life, it is not okay to talk about periods. Men still find it awkward to talk about it. And in India, we have don’t have enough women coaches and trainers to bring about change. Like any other cultural shift, this is also going to take time. But in the meantime, we should try to ensure that women athletes are comfortable talking about menstrual pain and that periods are not dismissed as a “ladies’ problem”.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 12, 2020 under the title "Match day and a 'ladies' problem". Aggarwal is a former national table tennis champion and represented India at the Beijing Olympics ‘She Said’ is a fortnightly column curated by National Editor Shalini Langer