‘It just hits you like a truck’: Mary Fowler on menstruation and normalising periods in football

<span>Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Most people who menstruate will have a story about the lengths they went to to manage their period, or to hide it, or clean it up – usually because they were not comfortable speaking openly about it. When Australia and Manchester City forward Mary Fowler first got her period she dealt with it by wearing four pairs of underwear, then compression shorts, then football shorts.

“Because I was always playing in the boys team, when I got my period I was always so self conscious about it,” she says. “I just wouldn’t want it to go through my pants.”

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Why is Fowler sharing this? Because she thinks the topic should be part of everyday conversations for all athletes and she wants girls to feel more comfortable playing sport.

“Looking back now I’m like, ‘no, you could have just worn one [pair],’ but when you don’t know enough about it, you just worry about it a lot more than what you need to,” she says. “Nowadays if girls are starting out and they’re playing in girls teams I would hope that girls are more comfortable with it and being able to speak to each other about it. But at the same time I also know that talking about menstruation is a very awkward topic for some people still.”

Fowler wants to change that, and she’s stepping outside her comfort zone to do it.

“To take the step to talk about these things has been big for me because there’s so many people that … go through things and they just keep it to themselves but they don’t realise how many other people go through those things.

“In my family, as I got older, talking about menstruation actually was very normal, it was a very comfortable subject. And it was something that my father in particular had an interest in wanting to understand more about it. So I was quite fortunate to have a family that was open to discuss it.

“But at the same time, I know that’s not the case for everybody, and I think being able to have that kind of open discussion is where we want things to get to.”

Fowler has variously been called Australian football’s “rising star”, a “prodigy”, a “superstar in the making” and, by Matildas captain Sam Kerr,“the next big thing”. Those words could weigh heavy on the shoulders of a player who just turned 20, but when you look at how far Fowler has come in such a short time, and how determined she is to be herself, it all makes sense.

Her rise has been meteoric but she sometimes comes crashing down to earth on day one of her menstrual cycle when “it just hits you like a truck”. “You’re just on the bathroom floor and I would be vomiting and then be on the toilet,” she says. “Those days are just rubbish.”

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In the past she has been in club environments where talking like that was not an option.

“Speaking about it made you look like you’re trying to get out of something or you look weak in saying it, because maybe the staff know that this other girl when she’s on her period she just trained through it, ‘so why can’t you?’” Fowler says.

“There were definitely times when I’ve felt really ill and just gone through with training or gone through with a match because I don’t feel like I can say anything about it. And I know from talking to other girls about it, that they’ve also experienced that.

“I don’t think people understand that how people go through menstruation is very different from one another. Some people don’t feel anything at all. Other people actually just get it real bad. And so the way to manage that is going to vary from person to person.

“Having the experiences that I’ve had with periods I know that there are many environments that aren’t set up well enough to help deal with athletes that go through menstruation.”

But at Manchester City it is a different story and Fowler is quick to acknowledge that she’s “really lucky” to be at a club that’s “trying to know more about menstruation”.

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“They track everybody’s cycle and they try to help you out when you are on it,” she says. “If I’m feeling shitty because of my period, I can just say that to them, and then they will try to help look after me. They’ll make a smoothie for me and put turmeric and ginger in it, just trying little things to help and soothe cramps, soothe the back pain.”

But most importantly, “they will listen to me, and that’s where you want things to be for most people in their working environments”.

In April, Australia and New Zealand followed the lead of England and revealed new “period-conscious” kits which included shunning white shorts and leak protection in the liner. On the whole the move is a positive one, Fowler says, but she knows there are mixed opinions because periods don’t affect everyone the same way: some couldn’t care less about white shorts, for others it’s a relief, but for many it’s not enough.

“In the past I would have hated wearing white pants because I was so worried about getting blood on there,” she says. But her response if it happened now: “Oh, it is what it is.”

“It is a nice step. But I think there are more important things that need to be done as well. There’s not nearly enough research done on it because women experience menstruation so differently from one another. As girls, and even for me right now, I don’t know nearly enough about it.

“I think when there’s enough knowledge about this topic, then you’re not worried about the things that people are going to think about you if you speak up about it because it’s not, it shouldn’t be seen as weak. If you’re telling someone how you’re actually feeling, especially when it’s about your period.”

Fowler with Matildas teammates Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord and Emily Van Egmond.
Fowler with Matildas teammates Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord and Emily Van Egmond. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

There is another reason why Fowler wants to talk about menstruation, and it’s to do with her football legacy, which is not a topic you would normally expect a 20-year-old to broach but it’s important to her to start now.

“I would like to be able to speak about things that aren’t just to do with football,” she says. “And I think for me something as simple as menstruation … when I was younger if I was able to listen to a role model of mine that was speaking about those things and how they dealt with it, that would have helped me a lot and just shown me it’s something that’s normal.”

For Fowler, one element of being a public figure is being honest about how she feels, and how she looks, especially on social media.

“It’s gotten to a point where I realised the best way to inspire, to be a role model, is just by showing up as me, and if that means I’m going to have a bloated stomach, if that means I’m going to have messy hair, if I’m going to have blood on my pants in my period well then that’s me,” she says. “If people are able to relate to that, then I’m happy.”

  • Mary Fowler was speaking to Guardian Australia before the launch of a four-part docu-series in partnership with Rebel Sport and Channel Seven, which is available to watch on 7plus