THE BLOG

Jazmin Sawyers, And Realising I Was Part Of The Problem

08/06/2017 12:53
Stephen Pond - British Athletics via Getty Images

Most weeks, at about the same time, I start to look at something to blog about. I look at all the usual websites and social media accounts trying to find the biggest story across the world of sport. This week was no different. As I cast around for something to write, I discovered, buried beneath the imaginary fold of a digital homepage, a striking story about British long jumper Jazmin Sawyers. She was suffering from menstrual pain so severe that she was forced to pull out of a competition in Boston. She made a brilliant, powerful statement in which she questioned why we never hear about this as an issue in sport, why it is still a taboo that female athletes are forced to bear:

I read that statement, and thought she was exactly right, and brilliant for saying it. Exactly the sort of thing that I'd normally write about. But then I did something that many writers, many editors, many producers, have decided to do before me. I decided to cover something else instead.

In doing so, I became part of the problem. When Heather Watson was eliminated from the Australian Open earlier this year, she spoke of her own struggles with the symptoms of her period. The conversation was the same then. In the words of former pro Annabel Croft "No one ever talks about it." The Guardian called it "The last great sporting taboo" and several months on, little has changed. Sawyers' comments still feel like a refreshing change, and that's only if you could find them, well down the pecking order of stories. It remains something very few are willing to talk about. But taboo like these aren't abstract, they don't just happen. They continue through individual decisions. The writer who chooses not to write the piece or the editor who buries it on the page, usually due to some perceived sensitivity. I did exactly the same, and the reasons why say a lot about why this remains an unmoving sporting taboo.

The first and most obvious reason I put it aside, was that it would be just too difficult. Of course it is personal, it's not something that you talk about in everyday conversation. The fear of putting a foot wrong isn't something callous or intentionally offensive, it is a genuine desire not to offend. But that's the issue isn't it. A desire not be the problem, becomes the problem. The taboo becomes self-fulfilling, despite the fact that female athletes themselves likely find it the most natural thing in the world to discuss. Of course, we should point out when people get it wrong, when they write insensitively. But when their mistakes are sincere, and without malice, we should be understanding. In an age where every mistake is magnified and derided, suddenly nobody wants to write about things that are controversial, or difficult. The result is that we talk about the same things, and the same things remain taboo.

Then there's that other obvious reason. As a man, I am completely unqualified to talk about the effect of menstrual pain. I have no idea of the feeling of the symptoms. No understanding of what it's like to constantly medicate with other significant side effects, or build a training schedule around something that some of my competitors might not have to deal with at all. Or what it's like to know that if I complained I'd likely be ignored, or worse called weak by some idiot on the internet. I can't relate, and so perhaps I should just leave it to one of my female colleagues?

But then again, that would be an excuse, and I would still be part of the problem. Because it's too easy to just say men can't write about women's issues. Every day in our line of work, we try to sell to, convince and generally to understand women as much as men. As one of my colleagues correctly pointed out, it's not good enough to say that you have to be a woman to understand women. The marketing industry still isn't good enough at removing stereotypes, taboo and backwards cliché. It's our responsibility to have genuine understanding and empathy, and if men only write about men's issues and vice versa, we'll never get there.

Jazmin Sawyers once again shone a light on an issue that is chronically brushed under the carpet, despite affecting millions of female athletes from elite to amateur. If I have learned anything, it's how easy it is to become part of the problem. I'm sure female athletes see it as the most natural thing in the world, yet there is still a mainstream fear of being insensitive that continues the taboo. I have almost certainly got something wrong in this piece, but if I have, cut me some slack. Because if people are scared to write about things that are hard, we are all worse off. We all have a responsibility to talk about this issue, and others like it, because not talking can be as damaging as talking incorrectly. So celebrate people like Jazmin Sawyers, listen to what they have to say, and remember that the safe story, isn't always the right one.

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