As the Women’s World Cup heads into its quarter-finals, a small but significant change has swept the competition.
Look closer at the team kits of England, New Zealand, Canada, France, Nigeria and the United States, and you’ll see it: a comparative lack, to years past, of white shorts.
It’s what former president of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, Dr Akilah Carter-Francique, described to The New York Times as “period justice”. And it’s long overdue.
In the lead-up to this year’s competition, both host nations – Australia and New Zealand – unveiled new kits that included period leak protections, together with materials and tailoring that specifically respond to the needs of high-performance women’s footballers.
“It’s always something that women athletes, not just footballers, have had to deal with,” New Zealand striker Hannah Wilkinson, whose team transitioned from white to teal shorts, said in April.
“It just helps us focus more on performance and shows a recognition and appreciation of women’s health.”
For the first time the Matildas’ kit, created by Nike, features period protection in the base layer under players’ shorts – using 3D technology to create a “built-in brief” shape that aligns with the contours of the body.
“The construction involves a double layered material that acts as a liner and absorbs, wicks and holds menstrual fluid, with another layer that acts as an anti-leakage barrier,” vice-president of Nike’s women’s global sports apparel, Jordana Katcher, explained.
“The best thing is how thin this protection is – only the thickness of a 10 cent piece.”
The Women’s World Cup is the latest example of a trend sweeping women’s elite sports, as athletes increasingly rebel against uniform conventions handed down over decades.
“There are women sort of drawing a line in the sand in areas where they have more control,” chief brand officer of activewear behemoth Lululemon, Nikki Neuburger, told The Times.
They are saying, she went on, “‘We’re here, we’re equal. We have a voice, we have needs that have to be met.’ And in this space, there is actually not a great argument for why that shouldn’t be true.”
Perhaps the most notable example has been at Wimbledon, where this year, the All England Club finally relaxed its archaic all-white rules in recognition of female menstrual reality.
Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina and America’s Shelby Rogers were among the first competitors to wear dark shorts under their tennis whites. All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club chief executive, Sally Bolton, said it was the tournament’s “hope that this rule adjustment will help players focus purely on their performance by relieving a potential source of anxiety”.
Women’s uniforms have historically been tailored for men – either literally, meaning they didn’t fit female bodies correctly or accommodate for their needs; or for the male gaze.
As former director of the AWSA and Football Federation Australia, Heather Reid, told the ABC in July, “issues around body image and the uniform is critical to girls’ participation in sport”.
The taboo associated with menstruation stop many young girls from continuing sport – a UK survey of more than 4000 teenagers published last year found there are complex barriers and deep-rooted negative attitudes affecting girls’ enjoyment of physical activity, including period shame and body image issues.
Of the girls in the survey who used to be sporty, 78 per cent said they avoided sport when they had their period (73 per cent due to pain, and 62 per cent out of fear of leakage). Seventy-three per cent of the cohort said they didn’t like others watching them take part in physical activity.
The impact of such uniform changes, therefore, should not be underestimated.
“Now we get uniforms that are made for the female athlete. They’re not hand-me-downs where everything is baggy and shorts are down to their knees. It’s completely different in terms of having kits designed for performance, and not for anything that might be there to sell the sexualisation of athletes like the bodysuits or skirts,” Ms Reid said.
“It’s similar to boots. Most women players had to buy boys’ boots, or boots that didn’t really fit them. You couldn’t get them for women anywhere, and sports stores weren’t prepared to import large quantities of women’s boots because they weren’t sure they’d get the sales.
“Now, of course, participation numbers have gone through the roof and they can do that. Now we get kits specifically for women. It’s the evolution of the game that’s so exciting in that regard.”
Former Matildas player Janine McPhee, also speaking to the national broadcaster, agreed.
“We have certainly needed to improve in that area for a long time. Some players actually wouldn’t come to training for the time that they were on their menstrual cycles because they had to wear white shorts and had a period that was quite heavy,” she recalled.
“You can imagine the shame and embarrassment that happened back then when those situations did occur.
“Obviously the technology wasn’t there back in the day, so now it’s great to see players are confident enough when they put on that strip that they don’t have to worry about those issues. It makes you walk 10 feet taller.”