The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio have produced some memorable moments and introduced us to some unforgettable characters, but the Olympic coverage, for all of its excitement and celebration, has been criticized for sexism.
For example, Corey Cogdell won a Bronze medal in trapshooting and was reduced in headlines to nothing more than the wife of a football player. Or how about when swimmer Kantinka Hosszu’s broke the world record and the credit was given to her husband?
But then we met Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui, who after finishing fourth in the 4X100 meter relay, partially blamed her poor performance on getting her period the night before. Through her honesty, Fu inadvertently did a lot to champion the way women everywhere are viewed.
“I didn’t swim well enough this time…because my period came yesterday, so I felt particularly tired,” Fu said in an interview after the race. She didn’t use that as an excuse, however, following that statement with “But this isn’t a reason. I still didn’t swim well enough.”
I was shocked. Did she really just say that, I wondered.
My first reaction was “Nooo!”
We don’t talk about those things in public, because we live in a world where many people think that menstruation makes women mentally unstable and physically weak. Our periods and our reproductive systems have been used against us for centuries. We’ve been taught that women can’t govern, can’t run big companies, can’t even make important decisions just because our bodies bleed once a month or because pregnancy is “inconvenient” for business, as Donald Trump said.
Women live in a culture of systemic oppression where we are constantly told that we are crazy and inferior for “bleeding out of our whatevers.” So we stay quiet about our periods, because to speak openly of menstruation without euphemism, and in mixed company, or in public, is to reveal weakness.
At first, I thought that’s what Fu was doing—exposing weakness, making women look “bad.” I imagined sportscasters making crude sexist jokes. I pictured a hundred shameful memes. I even worried that Fu would get in trouble in China for saying something that forthright. She didn’t though. I was wrong.
Fu Yuanhui is a national hero, beloved in China more for her delightful personality than her impressive swimming abilities. There are a lot of important lessons we can learn from this exuberant 20 year old, and most of them have little to do with cramps and bloating.
Fu’s comments need to be taken in the context of the situation, and who she is. After the race, she was literally doubled over in obvious pain, so when the reporter asked her what was wrong, she was truthful. She didn’t lie in shame, and she answered matter-of-factly and non-chalantly—the way we all need to when talking about periods.
Menstruation is natural, normal, and basically involuntary. It is not a curse, nor is it something we should have to hide because some people think it’s dirty or makes women “less than.” It’s a basic bodily function. We need to stop making it such a big deal.
Fu’s attitude about her period set an unprecedented example.
There is another truth about menstruation that women, including myself, have been taught to hide, and it’s that yes, it sometimes (a lot of the time) hurts and make us sick. We learn to keep this to ourselves, only complaining to our closest female friends and family members, because again, admitting this would be a sign of inferiority, proof of our supposed, inherent, female frailty.
When Fu said she didn’t feel gold medal worthy that day because of her period, part of me said “I hear you, girl. I’ve been there too.” Sometimes on the first day of my period I can barely get out of bed, so I give her a standing ovation for swimming in the Olympics with hers.
Not to mention that she swam at all, which is particularly notable because only until recent decades women were told that they couldn’t go in the water while menstruating. I still know women who think they can’t swim in the ocean because they’ll attract sharks. For the record, this isn’t true.
Fu Yuanhui never intended to make a fierce political statement. She didn’t say she had her period out of defiance or because she wanted to be a strong feminist activist. Her words weren’t about that, although her actions unintentionally started a worldwide conversation. Fu was just being real, and millions of women around the world connected with her through a shared experience.
Women everywhere thanked her for normalizing something that is, well, normal—even when we act as if it isn’t. In that moment, she was all of us. Fu’s honesty actually made her more beloved in China, the most populated country in the world, where a reported two percent of women even use tampons.
Fu is admired in China for her radiant personality and the way she speaks about everything (not just her uterus) with ease. She’s natural and unassuming, and the real taboos she breaks are the ones surrounding formality, what it means to be an athlete, a woman, a Chinese citizen, a human being. She is lighthearted, often silly, and her absolute zeal for life comes through in everything she does, which is why her many interviews are so engaging.
Whether she’s joking about her “mystic energy,” expressing surprise at how fast she swims, blaming a different loss on her too short arms, making funny faces during medal ceremonies, or complaining about cramps, Fu’s real lesson is this: lighten up.
We need to have a good time, get excited, spread joy, be authentic in every moment, and never be ashamed of your body and what it can do. And, oh yeah, kick butt and win medals too. Isn’t this the best way to spark real change in the world? By setting an example of love, acceptance, honesty, vulnerability and happiness?
Did Fu Yuanhui reveal weakness by being honest about her period? No way. She showed us the strength of authenticity.
Author: Victoria Fedden
Image: YouTube screenshot
Editor: Nicole Cameron