Over the past several weeks, gymnast Aly Raisman has become more than an Olympic gold medalist. Following her testimony against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, she also became one of the most powerful voices in the #MeToo movement, speaking out on behalf of her teammates and people everywhere who have been the victims of sexual abuse. Now, Raisman, 23, is lending her voice to another important cause — menstrual equity; specifically, encouraging athletic facilities to provide period products for attendees and competitors alike.
She recently teamed up with Playtex Sport for their #PlayOn campaign, which encourages menstruators not to let their periods get in the way of their lives. According to Raisman, 75 percent of teenage girls stop playing sports or exercising when they have their period.
"That is just devastating and crazy to me,” she tells SheKnows. “So for me, it’s really important to try and normalize the conversation so that young girls don’t feel embarrassed about their period. We all get our period, so we might as well talk about it.”
And these conversations shouldn’t be limited to girls. Raisman says we should involve boys in these discussions so they too are familiar with the basic biological process and “so that when girls are in class, they don’t feel uncomfortable getting up and going to the bathroom.”
To help destigmatize the conversation surrounding periods and make products accessible to people who menstruate in different environments, Playtex Sport has placed tampon vending machines at sports arenas at the University of Texas and University of Connecticut as well as at the Chelsea Piers sports complex in New York City. Although Raisman says she’s “paranoid” and always carries her own period products with her at all times, she thinks the vending machines are great because they show people not to be embarrassed if they have their period and are out in public.
And like so many other people who menstruate, Raisman’s period can be pretty uncomfortable, but she has a strategy for getting through the week. “When I get my period, I usually feel pretty sick,” she says. “I get stomachaches, cramps, my back hurts, my hips hurt, so when I work out, I actually feel better.”
Although it can be easy to let your period get in the way of doing what you love, Raisman stresses that this shouldn’t be the case. “There are days when you want to lay in bed all day and you don’t want to get up,” she says. “But the best thing is to get moving.” When Raisman herself has her period, she’s not just moving — she’s doing gymnastics in a leotard, which she says makes it hard if you’re running to the bathroom but don’t have anywhere to put a tampon.
Raisman also wants young menstruators in particular to know that fluctuating weight is all part of growing up. “I think nobody really talks about how when you get your period as a young girl you do put on weight because your body’s changing to become a woman — which is totally normal — but I think there are so many messages telling young girls to be skinny, to not put on weight, and we have to change that,” she says. “So we have to talk about that your body is going to change, and that’s OK… Everyone is unique in their own way, and we have to stop putting so much pressure on women and girls to look this ideal, perfect body type.”
In addition to educating boys on the basics of biology, Raisman believes it's important to include fathers in conversations on periods and puberty. “Going through puberty is a very vulnerable time, and I think it’s important that dads are also supportive of their kids going through puberty and being there for them,” she says. “Even though it’s an uncomfortable conversation, we have to talk about it. Often, the uncomfortable conversations are the ones that need to be had the most.”
And, as the world knows by now, Raisman is no stranger to uncomfortable conversations. As one of the most vocal gymnasts on the topic of the sexual abuse at the hands of Nassar, she knows all about talking about difficult topics.
“It’s something that it’s very hard to not go public about it, and it’s very hard to go public about it,” she explains. “I think people really don’t understand that when you don’t go public with it, it’s very difficult. But when you do go public with it, it’s not [as thought] it’s just like weight is lifted off your shoulders. It’s very hard to talk about still.”
Ultimately, Raisman says she decided to go public because she wants to be part of the shift toward a culture of believing survivors. “I think our society is finally listening and believing that abuse is far more common than we allow ourselves to think,” she says. “It’s horrifically common. So I want change.”
Specifically, Raisman wants to help educate younger generations, starting when they're first learning how to talk — to arm them with the language and tools to recognize and speak up about abuse and grooming techniques (the process through which an adult builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of abuse). She wants to teach them that people they trust — or even love — could be hurting them.
“When I was younger, I assumed that it could only be a stranger that was hurting me, so even though the doctor was mistreating me and so many others, I just thought he was a doctor,” Raisman explains. “I thought he was weird, but I never imagined he would be a monster and he would be in jail for the rest of his life. So we just have to continue that dialogue. It’s very, very important.”
It wasn’t until a private investigator hired by USA Gymnastics came to Raisman’s house to ask about Nassar that it really started to sink in that she — as well as her teammates — had endured years of abuse. “When [the investigator] was asking me questions about his behavior and I went in and spoke about it with my mom and I was very confused,” she says, adding that she had been “brainwashed and manipulated” by Nassar.
Initially, Raisman says she was “making excuses for Larry,” which is typical behavior for survivors of abuse because the abusers are master manipulators. “For so long, because Larry was a doctor, I just always thought he was very off, but I didn’t think he was harming me, because for so long everyone was saying he was the best doctor."
Nassar would bring her gifts and was kind to her, thoroughly convincing Raisman that he cared about her. “I want everyone to know that just because someone is nice to you — just because everyone thinks that they’re a great person, it doesn’t mean that they are."
As far as advice for other survivors of abuse, Raisman says that she hopes they have the courage to come forward and tell someone they trust.
“Remember that you are important. You matter. Your story matters, and you deserve to be safe,” she says. “I know it’s not easy, but I hope that they know that their abusers are cowards. They are horrible people and they should be exposed for the evil that they are. It’s not easy to come forward — it never, ever is — but hopefully they know that when they are ready, there is a full army of people ready to support them.”