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Menstruation and body image

I consider myself an expert on it relates to my body. I've had a regular (naturally produced) menstrual cycle for over 13 years. Each month, my menstrual cycle is a reminder of my healthy body and mind. Even in peak Ironman training, I still have a normal cycle. However, this doesn't mean that it's a fun time of the month. For almost two weeks out of every month, I suffer - mentally and physically. As a fellow female athlete, can you relate?

For females, menstruation is a normal monthly occurrence for a good 30-35 years of life. For female athletes, training and racing can be positively and negatively affected by your cycle - every female is different. An excellent read on this topic is ROAR by Dr. Stacy Sims. Although menstruation is often shunned by the media, it is gaining more attention by athletes, researchers and coaches. However, a topic that is not heavily discussed is the way your body image changes during your period.

Menstruation causes many physical and mental changes, specifically during the luteal phase (the second half of your cycle phase). Research shows that anxiety and negative body-image related thoughts are highest during this phase. In other words, females are more unsatisfied with how they look (appearance and body image) in this high hormone phase, often perceiving the body to be larger than it really is and feeling less attractive than normal. Despite research showing that body size remains the same, there's a strong association between body dissatisfaction and the menstrual cycle.

As I've discussed in previous posts, body image is a tough topic for athletes for its influenced by many factors. With so many mixed messages about what's the "ideal" image, how attractive or comfortable you feel about your body can be a constant work in progress. Emotionally, it can be tough to deal with all these messages, especially when there are dramatic changes in your hormones in the 10-14 days before your cycle. For this reason, it's important that female athletes become aware of the physiological changes that occur in the body throughout the menstrual cycle. The more self-awareness you have, the easier it is to take care of your body - especially when your hormones are making you feel miserable about the way that you look.

Here are a few side effects of menstruation that may affect your body image.
  • Constipation
  • Loose stools
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea 
  • Swollen or tender breasts
  • Night sweats
  • Gassy
  • Lethargy
  • Feeling tired
  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Appetite changes
  • Food cravings
  • Trouble concentrating 
Body image and restrictive eating/dieting often coincide. For when you are dissatisfied with your appearance, you may conclude that losing weight will make you feel better about yourself and your body image. Self-esteem, anxiety and depression can also be problems of being dissatisfied with your body image. For many, to help combat uncomfortable physical and psychological feelings, next comes restrictive eating, overexercising and patterns of disordered eating.

By recognizing that these issues (above) are normal, my hope is that you will avoid extreme dietary changes in attempt to try to change the way that you look and feel and instead, have more compassion for your body during this time of the month.

I can attest that it's no fun to deal with the side effects of menstruation...month after month after month. Especially when trying to train consistently - often in tight/revealing clothing. That is why I feel it's very important to recognize how your feelings about your body change in the week (or days) before you start your menstrual cycle and to remind yourself that what you are experiencing is due to a change of hormones - because you are healthy. If you find yourself being more critical of your body during this time of the month, often noticing more physical changes with your body, use this time to become more in-tune with your body so that you can give it what it needs, what it matters the most.