Is it any wonder that teenage girls avoid sports because of their periods?  Register for free to continue reading

Is it any wonder that teenage girls avoid sports because of their periods? Register for free to continue reading

There isn't a grown woman reading this who can't recall the embarrassment of the tampon wrapper creaking in the school bathroom. That painstaking process of peeling a sanitary napkin off its plastic cover, millimeter by millimeter, so there's no ripping sound and give you away.

Worse yet, how it felt to walk around in constant fear that a period, maybe your first, maybe an irregular cycle, would hit hard and unannounced, leaving visible evidence of your unpreparedness. Let's be brutal with the truth: Having a period in school was a fucking nightmare.

However, the 1990s, when I first had to adjust to the messy ritual of being a woman, was a long time ago. Since then, the culture of body positivity and openness facilitated by social media has had a huge and welcome impact on how periods are discussed in public and how women feel about managing their own sexual and menstrual health. The publication of Emma Barnett's book Period in 2019 marked this watershed moment as it hit the bestseller lists.

Unfortunately, however, nothing seems to be changing for the younger girls. Data compiled by the Youth Sport Trust has revealed that more than a third of school-age girls are discouraged from participating in school sports due to frustration with their periods and attitudes towards their bodies. And the situation is getting worse: 37 per cent of girls surveyed by the charity said their periods prevented them from being active at school last year, compared with 27 per cent in 2018-19.

An additional third also said they felt insecure participating in a sport due to others watching them. In the week that Adele has been publicly punished for the heinous crime of getting her exercise program wrong, this is not a childish reaction. Women's bodies are seen and commented on all the time; girls see this for what it is at a young age.

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But why, when women barely a decade older are celebrating their periods on TikTok and exchanging period underwear recommendations on Twitter, do girls still feel this way? What is it about menstruation during adolescence that is so difficult for girls? After all, uneventful periods are not a barrier to participation in sport; in fact, some sports like swimming are known to be beneficial in helping relieve menstrual cramps and PMS symptoms, which can be particularly intense during the already hormone-laden teen years.

The problem is not their bodies, but the environment that surrounds them. The girls are physically uncomfortable with their bodies at school and do not want to draw attention to themselves by changing or adjusting their clothes, because they are bleeding as they move.

Frankly, I don't blame them. Rarely do we give teenagers the privacy and discretion that we take for granted in adult life. Go to a gym, whether it's a luxurious members-only one or a local community facility, and in the locker rooms there will be options: An open, shared space for those who feel comfortable in it, or private cubicles for those who prefer to change without eyewitnesses.

Toilet cubicles in offices are now regularly designed as small individual rooms with floor-to-ceiling walls and doors. Why do we still expect teenage girls, who are getting used to the changes their bodies are going through, to share cubicles and get naked in open locker rooms? Why do we make them work out in an ugly and uncomfortable school PE uniform, described by some girls surveyed as “sassy”, instead of offering them the option of choosing a sports uniform that suits their shape, including good looking sports bras? quality?

Puberty will always be fraught with confusion and shame, but if adult women are finally ignoring generations of shame associated with our bodies, then we owe it to younger girls to help them do the same; and more opportunely than when we achieved it. It may cost money from the public treasury to reform the changing rooms of a secondary school. But how much more does it cost for so many girls to give up sports and exercise for life?

The Youth Sport Trust is now asking girls what would make a positive difference to their physical education experience. A good start would be to always treat them like the young adults they already are.