By Didi Tang
Who knew a simple statement about “that time of the month’’ could cause such a stir?
A Chinese Olympic swimmer whose popularity soared during the Rio Games for her animated facial expressions and rare candor has become a social media sensation for another off-the-cuff comment about a topic still considered taboo in China: her period.
Twenty-year-old Fu Yuanhui emerged from the women’s 4×100-meter medley relay two weeks ago and told a Chinese state broadcaster that she failed to swim her best in part because her period had started the day before. Television footage showed her crouching down with her hand over her stomach. Team China finished fourth in the race.
The interview quickly trended on Chinese social media sites, where users expressed surprise — and some admiration — that Fu had shared such an intimate matter but also that she swam while menstruating. Said one blogger: “If her candor can dispel the thought in some people’s minds that menstruation is dirty, then her act is worth applause.’’
In China, menstruation is considered an off-limits topic of conversation, a reflection of conservative views about women’s bodies and sex. “It’s an issue stemming from demonizing sex,’’ said one woman on the Chinese question-and-answer internet site Zhihu. “Therefore, a well-educated girl should not think about anything related to sex.’’
There is also a long-held notion in China that women should not engage in exercise during menstruation. Girls are excused from physical education class at school and warned about taking showers, drinking cold water and eating raw fish during one’s period. Immersion in water, the stories go, may cause infection.
And because tampons are unusual in the communist nation — there is a belief they can compromise the virginity of unmarried women — the idea that someone could swim during that time of the month is entirely novel.
Such ideas, while wrong, are something all women endure in China, said Wang Yuling, a gynecologist in Shanghai Huangpu District Health Center for Women and Children.
“If you have so many limitations during the period,’’ Wang said, “you could waste one-sixth of the year by thinking in this way.’’
Fu, a bronze medal winner in the 100-meter backstroke, is just one of several athletes on the Chinese team breaking ground by breaking from the typical on-message style common with past Chinese Olympic squads.