A few weeks ago, the World Boxing Council, one of the four major organizations that sanctions world championship boxing matches, announced new rules for women's boxing. The WBC declared it would be shortening matches for women for several reasons including the fact that women menstruate. No further rationale was given other than menstrual hormones can affect a woman's body and her ability to fight. It all seems like the punchline to some tired joke about women and their supposedly frail bodies, but it's not.
Taken at face value, the WBC's decision is patently absurd because it assumes that all women menstruate, are hampered by the effects of their period and are too stupid to do anything about it. First and foremost, studies on the relationship between menstruation and female athletic performance are few and far between, but the ones that do exist are inconclusive. In an article from 2008 in the Australian magazine Sports Coach, sports physician Dr. Susan White noted that,
"It's a difficult area to research. The things that some women associate with the menstrual cycle, like fatigue or bloating or general lethargy, are hard to measure. And even if we could measure them, it's then difficult to say that it's just one or a combination of those symptoms and other internal or external factors that may affect performance. ... [The] world's best performances have been recorded at all stages of the menstrual cycle, including the pre-menstrual and menstrual phases. [There] is one study in Italy that indicates female soccer players may have a greater injury risk before and during their menstrual periods. It is unclear whether it was because of physiological or psychological factors or a combination of them. There are no other studies at this stage that support this research."
If a woman knows her period does affect her athletic performance, Jackie Fairweather, head coach of the Australian Institute of Sport Triathlon (in the same Sports Coach article), recommended talking about menses on a case-by-case basis and also emphasized how working through a period can be empowering.
"I don't formally go out of my way to bring up the subject [of menstruation] with my athletes, but if a girl has a concern I hope that she feels our relationship is open enough to discuss it with me. Generally it is talked about in the girls' medical screenings once a year and a girl might come to me if they're feeling discomfort or if they've got a really important race coming up. In that case I'll manage it with a doctor, but personally I believe that on the whole girls need the confidence to see that they can go out and perform even with their period. Winning major competitions is about having the mental ability to adapt to anything and to deal with anything that's thrown at them."
Finally, the WBC's new rules for women seem to ignore the fact that not all female athletes menstruate, whether it's intentionally through birth control or inadvertently through amenorrhea, which is the absence of periods and can be brought about by stringent workout routines such as those maintained by elite athletes. The problems of associated with amenorhhea aside (and they are severe), it is hard to reconcile the WBC's blanket ruling when it clearly may not even affect all women.
Comparable agencies to the WBC such as the World Boxing Organization and the International Boxing Association and which deal with women fighters have little to say specifically regarding women's health. Some groups require that women sign waivers indicating that they are not pregnant going into a fight, but otherwise the rules for women are only slightly different than those for men. Nonetheless, in terms of popularity and support, women's boxing is already far behind the level of men's boxing and other fighting sports, and it's attitudes like the World Boxing Council's that keep it there.
Top image via wbcboxing.com.