Fu Yuanhui, a Chinese swimmer at the Rio Olympics, made headlines this week for telling the world she was on her period.
On Sunday, when she finished fourth in the women’s 4×100 meter medley relay, an interviewer found her doubled over and grimacing. She asked Fu if she was in pain.
“Actually, my period started last night, so I’m feeling pretty weak and really tired,” Fu told the interviewer in Mandarin, according to an English-subtitled video on Shanghai Expat’s YouTube channel. “But this isn’t an excuse. At the end of the day, I just didn’t swim very well.”
The interview turned Fu into an overnight sensation on Weibo, a Chinese social media site, reported the New York Times: She broke the silence around menstruation in sports.
According to The Guardian, one commenter wrote, “It is a normal physiological phenomenon, so why can’t we mention it? Fu Yuanhui is awesome!”
The swimmer’s remark also shed light on shifting Chinese attitudes toward periods.
“It tells us a lot about what’s going on in China today,” says Susan Greenhalgh, a professor who focuses on Chinese society at Harvard University’s department of anthropology. “The vocal empowerment of young people and the fact that gender issues are coming to the fore, it’s exciting.”
For some Chinese netizens, Fu’s statement was eye-opening. According to the Guardian‘s report, some commenters on Weibo were surprised that women could even swim while they have their period.
This superstition reflects China’s traditional beliefs about menstruation, which are “still very pervasive,” says Greenhalgh. Many of those ideas were collected in a 1980 study by researcher Cordia Ming-Yeuk Chu, now the director of the Center for Environment and Population Health at Griffith University of Australia.
Chu’s study found that the Chinese believe the period disrupts the natural forces of the body they call yin and yang. They also believe that a woman having her period should avoid activities like swimming and other contact with water because that could further upset the balance of yin and yang.
Menstrual blood is seen in Chinese culture as “polluting” and “dirty,” adds Greenhalgh.
These ideas aren’t unique to China, says Archana Patkar, program manager of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, a United Nations sanitation and hygiene campaign. She has been encouraging more education around menstruation for nearly two decades. “Taboos are omnipresent. They’re in the U.S. and they’re in China, India and Africa,” she says. “They just take different forms in how they are colored in social discourse or the kinds of superstitions they’re surrounded by.”
Some 76 percent of Chinese women feel uncomfortable in a social setting — like having dinner with friends or family, for example — while having their period, says the council’s 2014 survey of 500 Chinese women, conducted by the council.
Because there’s been so much silence around the subject, “there’s little effective management and treatment for women during her menstrual period,” says Greenhalgh. “Here in the U.S., if women have menstrual pain, there are all sorts of medications and products to help. But that area of health has not been developed in China.”
That extends to feminine care. When some Chinese commenters wondered how Fu’s period did not “stain the pool red” on Weibo, someone responded, “Haven’t you heard of something called a tampon?”
Probably not. A Los Angeles Times article published in March reported that Chinese manufacturers made 85 billion sanitary napkins last year but not a single tampon — and that tampons “made up just 2.5 percent of the $7.6 billion sanitary pad market,” according to the research firm Mintel.
The article explained: “There are many barriers to acceptance in China, starting with a lack of sex education. Even young Chinese women say they know little about their body parts and fear (mistakenly) that tampons will break their hymen and rob them of their virginity.”
That could soon change. Rising interest in tampons has encouraged one Chinese company to start its own brand, Danbishuang, which means Crimson Jade Cool. And perhaps there’s an opportunity to involve “confident” female athletes in marketing them, wrote Jidi Guo, a Shanghai-based market researcher, in a blog post on her LinkedIn page — “showing how womanhood doesn’t stand between a girl and her goals.”
Greenhalgh suspects that tampons will be mainly used by urban women. “Some women in rural areas still use cloths that they wrap together into pads,” she says.
But attitudes won’t change without an open conversation, says Patkar. And that’s what Fu has done. She didn’t use the Chinese euphemism and say, “My auntie has come.” Instead, she used the word “period.”