Expresso Sports Feature on Wimbledon 2022: White clothing diktat in sport needs to be reconsidered for period days

You are listening to the Expresso Sports Update. Here is a feature on how the White clothing diktat in sport needs to be reconsidered for period days at the Wimbledon Championships, brought to you by The Indian Express.
“It had felt awkward when boys at her academy didn’t know why Aditi Mutatkar came for badminton training, wearing dark shorts a few days of the month. And doubly embarrassing when they finally figured out why. Because they giggled. And it grated on her already jumpy nerves.

The former international shuttler remembers that feeling of annoyance and thinks back to the times she wanted to shoot back and say, “Shut up, I am on my period”, hoping those five words will someday be normalized in a sports setting and prevent life- long scarring.

As Wimbledon awakens from its long pristine-white slumber with different voices raising questions about SW 19’s pedantic white-only clothing rule, unrelenting even for women players on their periods, the sport is in for a serious sartorial reckoning of its age-old traditions. Chinese Quinwen Zhang kickstarted the discussion by speaking of how menstrual cramps affected her in her loss to Iga Swiatek at the French Open. Over a summer of discontent, heading into the white-clothing Slam quaintly dressed up as ‘tradition’, tennis broadcaster Catherine Whitaker has been quoted in The Telegraph asking “if a tradition that affected men the same way as women going into their biggest day on a period, forced to wear white, would last.”

Whitaker also raised flags on policing of women’s toilet break durations, while Rio Olympic champion Monica Puig was quoted in the same publication speaking of the ‘mental stress’ of wearing white at Wimbledon and having prayed previously that she wouldn’t get her period at that time. British hope Heather Watson told The Sunday Times she’d had to come off the court once in the past, while worrying, “Oh my God. I hope you can’t see that in any pictures,” while Australian Rennae Stubbs spoke of how it was something players did talk about in the locker room, while hoping extra-large tampons, and additional padding, did the job.

Visions in white, gliding for exquisite serve-and-volleying on the scenic green grass, Wimbledon might well be. But the uniform can be a complete nightmare for women. The Sunday Times quoted Canadian Rebecca Marino, prepping for her first Wimbledon outing, as saying, “It’s everyone’s worst fear that you get your period at Wimbledon and you don’t know that it’s coming. It shouldn’t be embarrassing, but white makes it so.”

While badminton let go of the white shorts rule midway through her teens, Mutatkar recalls her first instance of falling in line with the diktat. “This must be U10 and we would dutifully follow the coach’s instructions of turning up in ironed, crisp white shirts and shorts even in training to set the discipline. Then at one point, coaches pulled the girls aside, asked the boys to leave, and told us on “those days” you can wear colored shorts because there can be staining and embarrassment. Boys haven’t explained anything, so when “rules” were broken, they would whisper among themselves and demand to know why we were allowed to come in colored shorts. It became embarrassing and a weird space. Then they figured something was off for four days, and then she switches back to white and started to giggle. I wish this was addressed openly and the giggling had stopped,”

The Wimbledon rules, ironically, had come about according to The Sunday Times piece, to minimize sweat stains on colored clothes back in the 1800s.

Whites have been viewed as classy and sticking to tradition, and the All England Club, which is otherwise committed to “prioritising women’s health and providing with anything they require” – installing sanitary product dispensers in changing rooms, has surprisingly not shown the alacrity to offer leniency in cases of women getting their periods.

Mutatkar wonders how many women are part of the decision-making on playing uniforms across sports. She said, “Because men will never even begin to understand what this issue is about or get that perspective. Tradition is fine, but if 50 percent of your players are not comfortable, you should be listening to them. Wimbledon and all these federations are what they are because of the players, and should exist around the athletes and their performance. Tradition is not green grass and white clothes. It’s players.”

Meanwhile, Former Australian cricket international and current USA coach, Julia Price, 50, said that cricket poses challenges of its own like long batting hours in Test matches, and women needing longer “drinks breaks” to scamper to the washroom to check if all was fine. She said, “Sure, in our times, we’d just deal with it though whites weren’t always comfortable. And even when we wore yellow, it would be an absolute concern so we made sure we took extra protection with additional layers.”

Price thinks the Wimbledon tradition of all-white clothing is fantastic but recalls the resistance Martina Navratilova faced when wanting to wear shorts instead of skirts, and avers that professional teams will always prioritize the performance and comfort of athletes, going past taboo conversations.”

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