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, “Chup baitho, period pe hoo (keep quiet, I am on my period)”, hoping those five words will someday be normalised in a sports setting and prevent life-long scarring.
As Wimbledon awakens from its long pristine-white slumber with myriad voices raising questions about SW 19’s pedantic white-only clothing rule, unrelenting even for women players on their periods, sport is in for a serious sartorial reckoning of its age-old traditions. Chinese Quinwen Zhang kickstarted the discussion 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 idyllic green grass, Wimbledon might well be. But the uniform can be a ‘whitemare’ 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 is coming. It shouldn’t be embarrassing, but white makes it so.” Mutatkar says even training days used to be something young girls wanted to get over with.
Lack of understanding
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 coloured shorts because there can be staining and embarrassment. Boys weren’t explained anything, so when “rules” were broken, they would whisper amongst themselves and demand to know why we were allowed to come in coloured shorts. It became embarrassing and a weird space “unn dinon mein (on those days).” 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,” Mutatkar says.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) June 27, 2022
The Wimbledon rules, ironically, had come about according to The Sunday Times piece, to minimise sweat stains on coloured clothes back in the 1800s. “Look, no one wants to stain. But blood will come. And as it is, sweat and blood is icky to deal with when you are playing sport, without having to additionally wear white,” Mutatkar says.
According to The Telegraph’s Women’s Sports, Russian Tatiana Golovin faced a barrage of downright idiotic headlines like “Cheeky Golovin refuses to drop her red knickers” when she turned up in coloured underpants to which organisers had responded in 2014 by clamping down on coloured undergarments.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) June 27, 2022
“It’s something always on the mind. No one’s spoken because women have just dealt with it,” ST quoted her. 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 actually part of the decision-making on playing uniforms across sports. “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,” she says.
Cricket has its own issues
Former Australian cricket international and current USA coach, Julia Price, 50, told The Indian Express 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. “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,” she says.
Women’s cricket inherited the men’s all whites, but the sport is in an additional cul de sac because the red/pink ball mandates lighter clothing for visibility, and much like Wimbledon and its charming traditions, Test match ‘whites’ are much aspired to. Price is blunt when she says women cricketers are relieved they aren’t expected to play in white culottes like in the 1970s – “were little more exposed than long pants” – and cricketers routinely wear ‘skins’ under long pants with sports tech rapidly advancing to accommodate those needs.
Cricket faced another problem of ‘see-through whites’ in earlier times, which was resolved with denser fabric, and a couple of other reasons why there’s not much of a kerfuffle in the sport. “Australian heat and sun can be uncomfortable, so white made practical sense. But we can continue to improve and have the conversation with players if they want change. Of course, women are still just fighting to play more Test cricket to start with,” she trails off, hinting at more existential issues.
Price reckons 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 prioritise performance and comfort of athletes, going past taboo conversations.