When I met my husband, Andy, a few years ago, we were talking about what it was like for an Olympic swimmer — like me — to compete while having her period.
It was so funny. He kind of knew the basics of it, but, you know, not really.
He was like, “So … what did you do on your week off, then?”
I went, “What d’you mean?”
He was like, “You know … when you got your period, what did you do on that week? What kind of training did you do?”
I was like, “What ARE you talking about??”
He was like, “Well, you couldn’t swim….”
I’m sorry, he genuinely thought I couldn’t swim for a WHOLE week while I had my period! I was like, “Do you think I would’ve got away with having a week off, every month, and go to the Olympics?”
Awww. That’s not how it works, babe.
It was just so funny that Andy knew so little about something so basic. But then, why would he know? He doesn’t know the sport. He doesn’t know the female body. And this is why I want to bring it up, because it is so not talked about.
What does not make sense is having a huge problem in your life and not doing anything about it.- Rebecca Adlington
Girls, it’s International Women’s Day. This stuff is important for every young woman. It’s weird. It’s confusing. Your body is changing, and you don’t really understand what’s going on.
So as someone who had a really difficult time in her teens, let me impart a few bits of advice.
1) Talk to someone about your period.
We all have insecurities, don’t we? My thing was that I developed so young. Most of my friends at school got their periods at like 14 or 15.
I started at 10. I was like the only one.
I was bigger than the other girls, too. I was heavier. At the swimming club I used to hate doing the skinfold test, where they measure your fat. I’d be at the end of the queue, trying to make myself invisible. It was just so embarrassing.
I had really bad skin growing up as well. All the swimmers out there will know this: In the water, no matter how much concealer you put on, the chlorine will wash it off. You’re like, Noooooooooo! Damn it! You don’t get to do your hair and makeup and everything else. So I was so self-conscious. I used to wear a towel by the poolside all the time.
The hardest part is that nobody ever talks to girls about having your period, and how it changes the body. Here in the U.K. the schools don’t do enough to help them figure it out. They always find some person who’s not great at educating you, or a teacher tries to do it and it’s just awkward. Then they give you some leaflet from the 1950s, and you’re like, Why are you doing this? It’s not informative at all.
Girls: Find someone to talk to. Do some research, read up online, but most importantly, find that person you can share things with.
I guarantee it will make you feel so much better.
I was lucky that I had two older sisters. I never had to go around whispering, “Mum! Can I have some products?” All three of them were absolute godsends. Since I was the youngest girl in our swimming club, Nova Centurion, I also had teammates who were like 16 or 17, who would give me advice — not just about period stuff, but everything. Since it’s a mixed sport, the guys had to hear us talk about it openly. We totally normalised it.
It was basically life hacks for teenage girls. Obviously we couldn’t wear mascara in the pool, and even waterproof mascara is rubbish — it goes all bitty and horrible. So they were like, “Why don’t you get your eyelashes tinted?” They said it would make me feel a lot better, and it did.
After a while I stopped being so sensitive about how my body was changing. The more I talked about it, the less I felt like I needed to hide. But a lot of girls at the school didn’t talk about it, and I’d see them come in with so much makeup on. They would be like, “Oh, my skin’s really bad today.”
Having my period presented some problems when I was swimming. In training it was just, “Get on with it.” Take a Nurofen and crack on. If I had a huge headache or I was really sick, I used to say to my coach, “Bill, I’ve got woman….” And he’d immediately be like, “I totally get it.”
He was brilliant. I was so lucky with the people I had around me.
For competitions, though, I had to work out a solution. My mum went to a workshop and came back suggesting that I go on the pill.
I was like, “Sorry, what’s the pill?” I was 13.
So I sat down with a doctor and told him that I had a competition coming up, and that I didn’t want to be on my period. He talked me through what I needed to do. Even then it was hard, because the first pill I went on I put on so much weight. I was like, Why is this happening?? I had to find the right pill for me. It wasn’t like, “Take this and off you go.”
Anyway, I appreciate that not everyone will be as lucky as I was. Not everyone will have older sisters, or be comfortable talking about it with their mum. So girls, find a teammate. Ask a friend. Try to be open about it.
Also, if you’ve started having your period … don’t quit sports!
I know the drop-off for girls is huge at that age, but sports actually help a lot. It gets things moving. It gives you energy. It helps that kind-of-bloated feeling.
Schools should take way more responsibility on this. Sometimes they used to split the P.E. classes so that the guys would play football and the girls would either do running or netball or something like that. Why don’t they just talk to the girls about their periods then? Why not ask them how they feel?
It just takes that first step to go, Yes, I have my period, but I'm still gonna get through it. Once you do, each time becomes easier, and each month becomes more manageable. Trust me, it turns into a routine.
Remember, there are many girls around you that will feel exactly the same. It’s just a natural part of being a woman, and we all have to deal with it.
The best way is to do it together.
2) Block and ignore.
“I want you to die.”
These comments used to be part of my life.
You might feel that your problem is unique to you. It’s not. It’s normal.- Rebecca Adlington
I suspect a lot of young girls struggle with this, too.
I’ll never forget the messages I got after the London Olympics in 2012. I had won two gold medals and broken a world record in Beijing in 2008, when I was 19 years old. Nobody had expected it, least of all me. To give you an idea of how rare it was, I was the first British double gold medalist in swimming since 1908. So, when I competed in London, a lot of people expected gold.
What many didn’t get was that the sport had become a lot faster in those four years. I was about endurance. I was a lot less likely to do well now, and I ended up with two bronze.
I did feel that I messed up the 800 metres, where I had a good chance. But in the 400 metres I was like, Oh my god, I’ve got an Olympic home medal!
I was over the moon.
But then I went on Twitter.
“You are such a disappointment to the country.”
And that was one of the nicer ones….
At first I was clicking their profiles going, Hmm, interesting, and what do YOU do? What are YOU third in the world at?
But the comments got to me. It’s hard to explain, but when you put on the uniform, you feel such a responsibility to Team GB. It’s the most patriotic you will ever be. You are representing not just you but more than 60 million people.
So to think that my country wasn’t proud of me, that was really difficult for me to process.
I also got a lot of comments about my appearance. It would really blow up if I was on the telly as a pundit or whatever. As an athlete you get so good at accepting criticism, because the whole trick is to find flaws in your race and learn from them. But when it’s based on looks, it’s like, What has that got to do with my ability to swim?
I didn’t realise you had to be a model to be good at swimming. I didn’t read that in the job description.
It took me a long time to get over that. I’d go to these events where there were other “celebs”, and they were all so tiny. They weren’t athletes, you know? I had broad shoulders and a tall frame, as most swimmers do. I felt like Shrek, going in there like, “HIYAAAAAA!!!”
What hurt me the most, though, was when people got angry.
“I f***ing hate you, you ugly c***!”
“Just die already!”
I was like, But … why do I have to die? … because I’m ugly? … what??
I never, ever got a horrible comment in person, that was the weird thing. Some of the stuff I read on Twitter, I was like, Would you ever go up to that person and say that? No you wouldn’t. I couldn’t get my head around it. In real life people would ask about the medals and be so nice. There was just such a disconnect.
I used to take it personally. Oh gosh, have I met this person? How have I affected this person’s life?? I was like that for every tweet.
I got scared of opening my phone. Oh, my God, what’s the latest one?
I used to read the replies last thing before bed and first thing in the morning. I was essentially letting haters into my home. At some point I was like, Hold on, what am I doing?
I’d have loved to be like James Blunt, who is so witty and clever when he says things back. I just don’t have that ability. People told me to come off it, but there were some lovely messages on there, too. Unfortunately, it’s just human nature that if you get 10 good ones and one bad one, you focus on the bad.
So I tried making rules.
No social media after six o’clock in the evening.
No social media in the bedroom.
No reading replies.
None of them worked.
Luckily, I was seeing a sports psychologist, just to make sure I was calm and confident when I was competing. Together we settled on Block and Ignore. Every time I’d think about a comment, I’d erase it from my mind.
“You’ve got a big nose.”
“You look like a fish.”
That was the best way. It still works a treat.
But it’s always about the appearance with us women, isn’t it? I remember I would go to events with great Olympians like Chris Hoy and Louis Smith. It wasn’t them being shamed in the press the next day. Nope, it was good old Becky.
“SHE’S WORN THIS DRESS TWICE!”
“SHE LOOKS HORRIFIC IN THIS!”
I was like, Who cares? Who genuinely cares??
As for the comments section, I don’t even go there. It’s hell.
One time I was on holiday with Andy, and while he was in the bathroom he read this article about me. He came out, took my hand and said, “That was just awful.”
I was like, “What happened?”
He said, “I scrolled down.”
I said, “You can’t! Don’t ever do that again.”
He was almost traumatised. People think nasty comments are hard for the person who gets them, and they are, but they’re also difficult for other people in your life. My parents had to read some horrible stuff about their baby daughter.
For me, becoming a mum has helped a lot. I just care a little bit less. I have constant Mum Guilt, because I worry that I’m not doing enough to make sure my kids become nice people. When you have to keep two little human beings alive, your appearance falls way down the list of priorities. I still have my insecurities — we all do — but now that I’m 33, I also have some answers.
“You’re a disappointment to the country.”
I’m sorry, but sod off. You don’t speak for the majority here.
“Your shoulders are too broad.”
Well, these shoulders have also given me four Olympic medals.
“I want you to die.”
And I feel sorry for you, because you must be very angry and upset with your life to even contemplate writing something like that.
To all the young women out there: You do feel more comfortable in your own skin as you get older. If you are 19, you might think, Well, that doesn’t help me now. I totally get that. But it genuinely does happen. You get cellulite, spots and stretch marks, and you realise, Hey, I’m not ugly. I’m just normal.
Personally, I won’t pose or edit my photos. No beauty filters here. I don’t want people who follow me on social media to meet me in real life and think, Oh, you actually look very different. That’s just bizarre. I want to be genuine.
My daughter is six years old. When she gets on social media, I want her to click my profile and actually recognise her mum.
We all find flaws in ourselves, but it gets better with age. This is a big world, and there will always be angry weirdos out there who are spreading negativity and hate.
Don’t let them get to you.
Block and ignore.
And keep it real, ’cause a lot of people will respect you for it. Including me.
3) Remember that therapy is normal.
A few years ago, I began having frequent panic attacks.
As I mentioned, when I was swimming I had a psychologist, which made me feel so good. (It’s just talking, really. Nothing like lying on the couch, like in the movies.) But when I retired in 2013, at the age of 23, I stopped doing that.
And then my life was just boom, boom, boom, boom nonstop. I set up Becky Adlington’s Swim Stars, to teach kids how to swim.
I got married. I had a baby. I got divorced.
Things that normally happen to you over 10 years happened to me in two.
I wasn’t depressed. I just had anxiety. They are very different.
In 2019 I was really struggling with it. By then I had been with Andy for about a year. We actually met on a dating app. Yup, had to bite the bullet. He was my first match!! I think I am literally the only person in history to have found my husband at the first swipe. He was sitting there with a dog smiling his head off — how could I not say yes??
Anyway, I had told Andy about my panic attacks, and he’d seen me have one. But I hadn’t told anyone else, and I really wanted to, because it wasn’t fair on Andy that he had to deal with it on his own.
I just didn’t know how to slip the subject into conversations with other people.
“Can I have a cup of tea please oh and by the way I had a panic attack last night.”
Doesn’t really work, does it?
I felt like it was building up to this one big talk I had to have with someone. I got anxious just thinking about it. But I also realised that I couldn’t keep having these attacks. It wasn’t normal. It wasn’t the kind of life I wanted for myself.
So in January 2020 I went to see a therapist. It took a while to get my head around it, because I had never done proper therapy — it’s not two sessions and then you’re done. But it is one of the best things I have done in my entire life. I found out that, actually, you don’t need to have the Big Talk.
You just need some help, and it’s best to be open about it. After a few months I would tell my friends, “Oh I can’t do that, I’ve got therapy tomorrow.”
And they would be like, “Oh, O.K.” It became so normal.
This is totally how it should be. We always say, “Oh, I feel a bit tired today.” Why not say, “Oh, I feel a bit panicky”? It’s the same thing.
Once I started opening up about it, it was amazing how many people went, “Oh yeah, I go to therapy, too.”
I was like, “Really? I didn’t know that.”
They were like, “Well, I’ve never said it.…”
I actually think it can be more comfortable for people to talk about it online. At least that’s how it works for me. I didn’t need to start that big conversation. I just had to write a post and click send. I did it before I had my first session, just to say that if anyone else was feeling anxious about doing therapy for the first time, I was totally with them.
That was it. Took me 30 seconds.
So many people were like, “I’m going exactly through the same thing.” So many people reached out, and I felt like it created this community that was helping everyone.
I stopped having panic attacks after three months of therapy. Even then, I continued for about another five months, just to feel that I had all the tools, mentally, to move on.
I haven’t had a panic attack since.
So therapy works. It just makes sense.
What does not make sense is having a huge problem in your life and not doing anything about it. The same goes for the other stuff I have talked about too, like if your body is changing, or you are getting online abuse.
You might feel that your problem is unique to you. It’s not. It’s normal.
So talk to someone.
Whatever you are facing, you are not alone.