New research by Betty for Schools, the curriculum-linked period education programme for students aged 8-12, has shown a high number of young women are being held back from participating in school sports due to period taboos. The study of over 2,000 women found that almost half had used their periods as an excuse to skip PE classes – even if they felt well enough to take part.
So what was their reasoning? It seems embarrassment, rather than pain, is the major barrier to participation: three in four women stated that period shame was one of the main barriers to girls participating in sports in school. In fact, the top reason given for skipping sports classes was a fear of leaking, with two in five admitting that this was a serious concern for them. Other reasons – as told by 24 per cent of participants – were the worry of their sanitary pads being visible to others or slipping around as they exercised.
However, over two thirds of women agreed that if girls were better educated about periods and how they affect their bodies, they wouldn’t be so reluctant to take part in PE. As a result, Betty for Schools are launching a campaign this week – coinciding with Women’s Sport Week – to encourage parents and teachers to talk to children more about periods and exercise.
The campaign is supported by Sam Quek MBE, England and GB Hockey player, who is a passionate advocate of the need to overcome taboos when it comes to periods. ‘For me, sport and exercise are a huge part of life,’ she says. ‘I find it really sad that periods – something all women experience for a big part of our lives – are creating a barrier to sport for so many.’ What does she think can be done? ‘We have to break down taboos around periods – this starts with elite sportswomen being more open and honest, with schools creating the environment where girls can talk about the changes their bodies are going through, and education that empowers us all to know and understand our bodies better,’ she says.
Indeed, exercise and sport can in fact be extremely beneficial while menstruating, helping to release endorphins and alleviate cramps. The way we view exercise at such an early age is also thought to have an impact on later life, with 59 per cent of women agreeing that avoiding PE in school because of periods can negatively impact the way girls feel about physical exercise and sports into adulthood. ‘We know the value of exercise for our bodies and our minds – at all ages – and it’s really worrying that so many girls are finding that the weight of taboo around periods prevents them from participating in sports,’ says Becky Hipkiss, Education Manager at Betty for Schools. ‘More needs to be done to teach young girls about the benefits of exercise and to help them overcome the embarrassment about this perfectly natural time of the month. This has to start at school, with PE teachers being understanding of different girl’s needs, but also creating a comfortable environment in which girls feel empowered to work within the changes they experience each month. Girls also need to be wearing the right size and type of products which mean they can exercise without fear of leaking.’
Free Betty for Schools PSHE resources for teachers are available to download at bettyforschools.co.uk. Here, you can also find top tips for parents and teachers on how to tackle conversations with confidence about periods and exercise, as well as Sam Quek’s personal advice on how to handle sport and exercise during your period.