It’s hard to overstate the applause given to Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui, who after a race at Rio this week told a journalist matter-of-factly that she suffered from menstrual cramps during the event.
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First there was the wonderful essay by Gloria Steinem, who decades ago wrote that if men were the ones having periods they would become an object of envy, a masculine phenomenon worthy of a courage award. Now comes the Chinese swimmer blasting society’s problems with a totally routine physical occurrence, and the attendant patriarchal complex.
Unlike Fu Yuanhui, who has been reaping accolades in recent days, Israeli female marathon runner Lonah Chemtai has been criticized for withdrawing from the Olympics, explaining that her shoulder problems stemmed from nursing her baby, not to mention her milk-filled breasts while training for the race.
These stories come against the backdrop of the scandalous coverage of female athletes during these Olympics. Like many others, both male and female, I’ve been annoyed. How can you not be when TV broadcasters make comments like “go figure girls” and “cute, how feminine she looks,” when referring to some of the best athletes in the world?
I was angry until I realized that actually this was wonderful – a real gift to the feminist struggle. A perfect exhibit. Female athletes with phenomenal achievements are performing in front of the entire world and even they are subjected to pathetic sexism. Could there be a better illustration of humankind’s situation and the long way it still has to go?
The gap between women’s power, as demonstrated in these Games, and the sexist coverage underlines the absurdity of it all.
“Spectators probably wonder how girls learn such exercises or whether they’re dangerous,” blathered a commentator on the Israeli sports channel. “They’re just like girls at a mall,” babbled an American broadcaster on seeing female gymnasts huddling together, planning their next moves.
In contrast to this prattle, many parents say they watch the Olympics with their daughters, happy to see the wonderful role models.
“In sports we can see all the maladies of a patriarchal society, in a pointed and distilled way,” says sports researcher Michal Engel. “I think the Israeli media is disgraceful. How easy it is to crucify and eviscerate when one exposes feminine attributes. It’s one more aspect of a double standard. You can be a top career woman or an athlete, but you have to be a mother. If being a mother damages your career, you’ll be blamed for that as well.”
Referring to the inspiring story of Jessica Ennis-Hill, the track-and-field athlete who won a medal after giving birth, Engel notes the common claim that “women don’t aspire to things because they get pregnant and have babies: They don’t want to advance at work, they don’t want to be athletic superstars or politicians, and so on, because they get pregnant and give birth. But then along comes Ennis and shows that you can do both, even excellently.”
On periods, Engel says: “I’m all in favor of breaking the conspiracy of silence on the matter. Incidentally, some female athletes have their best achievements while menstruating. Others don’t care about it. It’s very personal.”
So what would she say to anyone who claims that “all these feminine issues” detract from the loftiness of the Olympics?
“That’s an unworthy and cowardly argument,” she says. “We sanctify the body through sports; it’s about women’s physiological bodies. In sports we overcome the body’s limitations. That’s the essence of it all.”
The problem, Engel agrees, is that the standards, in sports as in many other areas, are set by men, and women’s bodies have to adapt.
“There is research on women’s injuries in comparison to men. Many female basketball players tear their knee ligaments. At some point it was realized that this derives from female anatomy, with wider hips and a narrower base,” she says.
“Since women still train based on male schedules, there hasn’t been enough emphasis on the right muscles to look out for. Over the past decade more emphasis has been placed on strengthening the muscles around the knees in order to prevent injuries.”