I've written quite a bit recently about things that get discussed a lot within the swimming community; for example, what counts as 'real' swimming is an old chestnut, as is the complicated topic of fat. But I've also been thinking about what we don't talk about....or at least, what gets talked about very quietly among female swimmers, but rarely in public: menstruation.
A couple of years ago, I was on one of the Swimtrek long-distance training camps, and we were having some (important) fun during the infamous "3 P's" seminar, during which we discussed the practical necessities of managing bodily functions (Piss, Pooh and Puke). It was a graphic and light-hearted discussion that recognised the important reality that many swims founder on the handling of these most basic of bodily functions. As the seminar drew to a close, a female swimmer (one of only a handful in a largely male group) asked: "What about periods?" You could have cut the atmosphere in the room with a knife; eyes fell to the floor; people squirmed uncomfortably. The seminar leader rose splendidly to the occasion, and some of the women in the room chipped in with experience and advice. A joke about sharks scenting blood lightened the mood and all was well; and in future camps, the seminar morphed into "the 4 P's" to incorporate this important bodily aspect of swimming.
But I've never forgotten that instant collective reaction in the room to the female swimmer's question - one of mixed disgust and embarrassment at the unexpected airing of a topic that women are expected (and expect each other) to keep to themselves. There's nothing particular to swimming about this - after all, the advertising of what are euphemistically called "feminine hygiene products" is based entirely on the extent to which the product hides menstruation (rendered blue, and never red, in product demonstrations), enabling women to dance around in tight white trousers to their hearts' content. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, a lot of the (quiet) talk among women on the issue of menstruation and swimming is also about concealment - for example, how to cope with it while changing on a public beach, especially given the fairly widely accepted wisdom that it is not a healthy practice to wear products like tampons during long swims.
But I think that there are a wider set of discussions that I certainly know I would appreciate being aired more publicly about the ways in which menstruation both affects, and is affected by, swimming - both positive and negatively. I suffer from a gynaecological disorder called endometriosis which can cause severe pain, as well as a hormonal imbalance that makes my cycle at times extremely unpredictable. I am unwilling to take any hormonal medications (including those that many use to postpone menstruation in order to avoid a big swim or other important event); nor, by the way, did I opt to follow the advice of my socially-inept consultant who suggested that I should have a baby to "straighten things out for a bit". Instead, I manage my health through a series of dietary and herbal therapies, plus over-the-counter painkillers when necessary. But even though I experience the very occasional days when pain prevents me from swimming (and hope upon hope that this never coincides with a big swim day), I have also noticed a significant pattern of improvement in the months following a big swim. Indeed, after each of my long swims, I have experienced 4-6 months of predictable and pain free menstruation. Even my hardest training doesn't have the same effect - only the very long swims. Periods are often seen as an obstacle to swimming or at best, a nuisance, but it is perhaps not surprising that such an intense bodily experience as a long swim will impact upon the body's hormonal and metabolic functions in all kinds of unpredictable and potentially positive ways.
More recently for me, the early stages of the menopause have begun to enter the picture (and the menopause is, of course, another aspect of women's bodies that tends to be discussed negatively or not at all). With it, I noticed last summer a new unpredictability in my tolerance for cold, and I've since met a couple of other women who, anecdotally, reported a similar problem. In my case, this has proved amenable to herbal interventions for now, but I have no idea how this will manifest itself as the process of bodily change continues...or indeed, how my swimming will impact upon that process.
In short, then, menstruating is just one part of (some) women's lives, but one which tends to be bathed in secrecy and silence (in public settings, at least). Indeed, I have been stewing on this post for a while, unsure about whether to raise the topic at all or how comfortable I was discussing my own body publicly in this context. Nevertheless, I regularly receive queries from female swimmers on this issue, many of whom are wary of raising those questions in more male-dominated public spaces and forums, and it is clear that there is enormous variation in the ways that menstruation both affects, and is affected by, swimming.
I suspect that we have a lot to learn from each other about this.