Amidst the relentless barrage of news, one issue has continued to capture the spotlight: women's reproductive health. But the debate over women's rights and access to healthcare isn’t just a news issue. It directly impacts female athletes' well-being. The erosion of bodily autonomy for female athletes adds another layer of stress and concern that male athletes don't experience, furthering issues of gender equality in sport. If we’re going to support female athletes, engaging in open conversations about diseases that affect only the health of women is critical. Raising awareness about these conditions enables early diagnoses and fosters support for vital research to improve treatments and outcomes.
Consider endometriosis. Affecting approximately 1 in 10 females worldwide, endometriosis is often misdiagnosed or overlooked due to its association with the menstrual cycle. However, it is a systemic disease that can cause painful lesions on major organs, nerves, and other body parts. Common symptoms include severe cramps, heavy bleeding, pelvic pain, fatigue, depression, and digestive problems. Despite its prevalence, endometriosis is frequently misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or dismissed as typical menstrual discomfort. This delay of up to 8 years in diagnosis can have devastating consequences for those affected, leading to prolonged suffering and mental distress. Specifically, teenagers with endometriosis face unique challenges, as the disease often manifests alongside emotional struggles such as helplessness, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Unfortunately, many treatments merely address symptoms with medications and therapy rather than tackling the condition's root cause.
My experience with endometriosis began at age 12 when I first got my period. I endured excruciating pain and heavy bleeding, which disrupted my school and sports life. I dealt with extreme bloating that made me unrecognizable to myself in the mirror, quickly impacting my self-confidence. It also brought digestive issues and chronic pelvic pain, which were present every day of the month. This caused a significant mental toll, leading me to struggle with depression and anxiety. I feared that this was considered normal for all women and that this was going to affect me for the rest of my life.
As my symptoms worsened over time, I sought medical advice. Doctors reassured me that everything would improve with age. Solutions, such as birth control and antidepressants, were offered but did not provide the relief I needed. Experts continued to reassure me that my period pain was normal and that I needed to find a way to push through it, such as a heating pad or Advil. I knew this was not true. Feeling lost and confused, I began to doubt my pain, wondering if it was all in my head due to a low pain tolerance.
Eventually, I realized that I was the only expert on my body and its feelings. My expertise also held power. I needed to fight for the answers I deserved.
It took time, but at 20, I found a supportive doctor who listened to me, believed my symptoms, and recommended surgery to confirm a diagnosis of endometriosis and remove the lesions from all affected organs. I felt validated for the first time, knowing that my symptoms were real and not in my head. This newfound control over my body and decisions was liberating, alleviating stress and anxiety.
Undergoing surgery was the best decision I ever made, as it immediately improved my physical and mental well-being. Now, I no longer need to stress about my period falling on the same week as an exam or game, and I can practice without pain.
Losing autonomy can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. It also impacts performance. No one should feel as if they do not have control over their own body. Whether it's access to reproductive care or healthcare systems that genuinely listen to patients' needs, empowering women to trust their expertise of their body and promoting autonomy in healthcare decisions can help level the playing field in sports and beyond. By providing support and understanding, we can foster an environment where female athletes can focus on their game and performance.
There is still a long way to go in achieving true gender equality in athletics. But it’s not impossible. Together, we can empower women to control their bodies, health, and athletic potential.