Period undies, coming of age and winning the gold
A conversation with Gayle Broughton
When I speak to Gayle Broughton (Ngāti Ruanui, Ngāruahine), it’s been just over two months since her team took Olympic gold at the Tokyo Olympics. She’s enjoying some downtime, having recently visited her family in Hāwera, Taranaki. After five years of absolute focus on rugby and winning Olympic gold, Gayle speaks warmly of “finally getting time to spend quality time with my grandparents, they’re getting old, so, you know, helping them, going home to the farm and helping my Koro mow his lawns and little stuff like that…it’s that kind of stuff that fills my heart the most.”
Our conversation naturally shifts to menstruation, with Gayle excited to have recently received the AWWA Boxer Briefs, which she claims are “an absolute game changer”. When listening to Gayle talk about menstruation now, it’s hard to believe she used to struggle with shame and fear towards her period. Having previously gone to measures such as wearing double tights for rugby trainings out of fear of leakage, cancelling plans and worrying about people knowing she was menstruating, Gayle now proudly rocks her AWWA undies, going so far as to say that she’s now excited to go back to training and wear the new AWWA Boxer Briefs.
Gayle’s journey towards accepting her period is a journey that many of us will be able to relate to. Like many people, Gayle got her first period unexpectedly, and remembers the experience like it was yesterday.
“When I first got my period in intermediate, I had not had any sorts of conversations about blood coming out of my vagina,” Gayle tells me. “I had no idea. Literally, zero idea. And I remember sitting in class and I felt like I had, like, weed myself. And I was, like, ‘What the hell? Do I have to go toilet?’ So I went to go get up and tell the teacher that I had to go to the toilet and my seat was kind of wet and I panicked and I was, like, ‘Oh my god, I think I just pissed my pants’. So, being all embarrassed, I just walked out of class because I didn’t want to say ‘Oh hey Miss, can I go toilet’ and then have everyone look at me…
“I went into the girls’ bathroom and went to go toilet as you normally do and, yeah, my whole entire undies were covered in blood and I was freaking out. And I started crying because I was, like, ‘What the fuck?’ Like, honestly, I was freaking the fuck out. Like, oh my god, like, did I get stabbed? Like, did I sit on something? I was so confused. And I remember just crying. And I was quite lucky that time because one of my best mates, she walked in and she heard me crying and she was, like, ‘G, are you okay?’ and I told her, and she was, like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’ve got your period.’ And I was, like, ‘What the fuck is a period?’”
For some of us, it might be hard to believe that someone could be in intermediate school without having been taught about menstruation – but stigma still exists around teaching children about periods, and, whilst Health and Physical Education are currently compulsory school subjects from Years 1 to 10, the curriculum being taught is determined by individual schools, and schools are often heavily influenced by school boards and local community; until attitudes towards menstruation across society shift, we can’t be certain that schools are providing their students with adequate information. For Gayle, it wasn’t until her Aunty picked her up on that day – after she refused to leave the school toilets – that she had her first conversation about periods and menstrual products.
It was that moment – getting her first period in class without knowing what periods even were – that Gayle attributes to a lot of the shame and fear that she developed towards menstruation. The fear that led her to wear double tights during rugby training came from that moment in intermediate class and the fear of the whole class knowing what had happened.
“Yeah, it has always affected me,” Gayle reflects, “to the point where I think for a long time I still felt like I was that little girl too scared to come out of the girls’ toilet at school.”
Now, Gayle talks about being on a journey, learning more about the effects of menstruation and understanding that periods are “our way of our body taking care of ourselves”. Her team doctor has played a part in this journey, coaching the team about menstrual cycles from a medical perspective.
“It’s been so interesting,” Gayle says, “and we’re so lucky, our doctor, she’s been teaching our team quite a lot about the menstrual cycle, and kind of like what happens to your body, like the chemicals and stuff that is being like pushed out of your body and stuff like that”. Being introduced to AWWA by fellow teammate Ruby Tui also had an important role in helping Gayle begin to shift away from the shame and fear. Having previously sometimes “wished that I didn’t get my period anymore”, Gayle now builds rituals and self-care into her period cycle.
“So I live across the road from the beach,” Gayle explains, “and I kind of have this thing where I’ll go across the road and I’ll really just sit there and be. Like, I won’t take my phone over, sometimes I’ll take my pen over to draw in my book and stuff, but most times I’ll just go for a walk on the beach, and it’s really just my way to, I guess, thank my body in a way and be one with the ocean and the sand and stuff like that. That’s my main thing, is really just kind of saying thank you to my body and thank you for looking out for me in the way that it does.”
When asked about gender, Gayle describes herself “really just like a free floating butterfly…just kind of like to flow like the waves. Yeah if I can describe myself in any way, just like the ocean, just comes and goes.” Whilst this free-floating existence may sound carefree, it is certainly not without challenges. Gayle speaks fervidly about the fear she developed of using women’s restrooms after the judgement and challenges she’s received over the years.
“I would’ve been 17 when I cut my hair,” Gayle explains, “and for a long time I built this massive fear of going into changing rooms. I’d go to parties or, you know, I’d go to clubs and I’d walk into the bathroom and girls would just be like ‘Eh? What the hell? You shouldn’t be in here’. And I’d be like, ‘Oh, no, like, I am a woman, like, you know, I should be in here,’ but it created such a fear in me – kind of like the period – like, that I get scared of people’s judgement of me walking into a restroom now, you know? And I’ve had so many people come up to me and tell me ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be in here, you should be in the guy’s toilets’. And for so long… it’s been such a massive fear in me that I get scared about going into women’s restrooms now.
“But it’s something that I’m working through, just like my period undies, like that trust and that understanding that people are always gonna same some shit but it never reflects on me as a person. I think that has always been my biggest motivation around understanding my sexuality and the whole non-binary thing, is just, you know, I am who I am whether I’m a guy, a girl, or whatever name you wanna put on me, but like at the end of the day I’m Gayle, you know?”
And it’s that free-floating approach to gender that makes it so important for products such as the AWWA Boxer Briefs to exist. Gayle, who will “sometimes dress like a guy and sometimes dress like a girl”, and who occasionally wears boys’ Jockey briefs for the comfort and simply because she “just loves wearing them”, describes the Boxer Briefs as being “next level”.
“I think it’s so important,’ Gayle says. “There are a lot of people out there who don’t necessarily like wearing certain undies or using tampons and stuff like that, and the AWWA boxers are next level, with comfort and also style. It’s just so important to have more stuff like this made for us.”
Whilst describing herself as still being on a journey, it’s clear that a lot of Gayle’s acceptance of herself has come from conversations with her Koro. Influenced in part by the Māori household he grew up in and hearing his Nan’s Nan talk about how “periods were normal”, Gayle’s Koro helped her to see menstruation as “our way of our body taking care of ourselves”. Describing him as “the type of guy that would never, ever judge anybody because you know, like he’d always say ‘if you’re not inside them then you don’t truly know them so it’s really none of your business’”, Gayle states that her Koro is “my guy that I go to for advice and stuff like that.”
Family is evidently important to Gayle. Despite her grandparents being at every rugby tournament – with her Koro even attending the 2016 Rio Olympics despite recovering from knee surgery – the constraints of Covid-19 meant that spectators weren’t allowed at the Tokyo games.
“They definitely found it really hard not being there in person,” Gayle reflects. “But I think with the amount of talking we did before the games and after the games, they probably felt like they were there and, even just sending them videos after getting the medal and thanking them, you know, I think that played a big part for all my family.”
Even though a few months have passed and Gayle has finally been able to “flick the switch” from focussing so much on rugby to being able to spend more time with her family, there is still so much pride in her voice when she speaks of winning the Olympic gold.
“I guess nobody likes to come second,” Gayle reflects, referring to her team finishing with silver medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics, “especially sports players because we are one of the most competitive people in the universe which, you know, isn’t a bad thing but, yeah, it was 5 years of feeling like there was something missing.”
When standing on the podium and receiving her medal, it wasn’t the 5 long years of training that Gayle thought of. “I think I more so thought of these last 5 years of my life and the growth that I went through. You know, I was… not much people know but in 2019, after losing one of my brothers to suicide, I struggled quite a lot, especially after that happened, and obviously, you know, suicide is still a massive conversation that people don’t like to have these, especially for our men.
“And I guess for me, every one of those moments… I never thought of how many times I sprinted or how many times I had to lift a weight, I thought of how many times I didn’t want to wake up and didn’t want to be here, and I thought about, you know, just life in general, and my growth that I’ve put in over the years and the times that I struggled and the times that I succeeded and it was just that…that one moment was, you know, finally for me to enjoy and I just soaked it in.”
Thinking of the proudest moment overall, Gayle states that “I loved every moment of it but, yeah, I think the proudest moment was probably me holding up my Tino Rangatiratanga flag afterwards and just standing there as a proud human that loves hard and is an amazing human and a strong individual that could stand there and really just be proud of doing it for my people and yeah… that… when I think back to that moment, that’s what I think of. And even when I come home and celebrate with everyone and get to share it… honestly, I’ll never get sick of sharing this medal with everybody because without everybody, this medal would have never been, you know?”
We finish our conversation by discussing hopes for the future. Gayle speaks of hoping to see schools teach more about menstrual cycles, not only in separate health classes for girls but health classes for all students because “surely they can sit there for 30 minutes of their life and hear about something that women go through, it’s gonna happen, you know, like, this is how pregnancy starts.”
It’s a valid hope – not only would it prevent young people from experiencing their first period in a similar way to Gayle’s first experience, but it would also help to normalise conversations around menstruation and to break down some of the shame, fear and stigma that is still dominant across society. Unsurprisingly, Gayle also speaks of hopes for gender-neutral bathrooms, even if it’s “just having one bathroom” – a hope that would likely be echoed by many people who don’t conform to societal expectations of gender.
“You guys are changing the game,” Gayle ends with, reflecting on the importance of having products like the AWWA Boxer Briefs. “You guys are a massive game changer, not only for all women out there but for women like me that don’t necessarily like wearing normal undies. I’m just super excited to see the growth and see what happens in the next coming years.”
Words by Shardae Grenfell, AWWA Guest Blogger.