‘I had massive period anxiety playing for the Lionesses’

Karen Carney featured in four World Cups and was part of the 2012 Great Britain Olympics team (Picture: Getty Images)

With the roars of the crowd at World Cup matches, Karen Carney would be overcome with a sense of pride at playing for her country. But as she walked onto the pitch, she also often grappled with a secret fear.

The Lioness – who played for Arsenal, Birmingham City, Chicago Red Stars and Chelsea throughout her career- was paranoid about leaking through her all-white kit. 

‘I had, and still have, heavy periods so there was a massive anxiety for me about wearing white,’ Karen explains. ‘I hated it. I’d go out in major tournaments and turn to my teammates and ask “Am I alright? Can you check that I haven’t leaked?” 

‘That’s the last thing you want to be thinking when you’re going out onto a pitch in front of thousands of people, about to represent your country.’

In an exclusive interview with Metro, Karen shares how she struggled with periods for the majority of her career.

Karen Carney.

Karen spoke ahead of the release of Nuffield Health’s Healthier Nation Index, which revealed how women still see their menstrual cycle as a barrier to sport(Picture: James Baylis – AMA/Getty Images)

‘The anxiety was always there. Even if my mate had gone “Oh no Kaz, you’ve leaked” what could I have done? Could I have walked off during the game, or would that have made it even more obvious? There’s nothing I could have done, really.’

Having retired from football in 2019 after 144 appearances for England, Karen is the third most capped Lioness behind Fara Williams and Jill Scott. 

Five years from her retirement, the conversation around women’s health is only just beginning to improve.  

Research from Nuffield Health’s Healthier Nation Index, released today, shows that just over 1/4 (26%) of women say menstrual cycle and period symptoms stop them from exercising, a number that increases amongst 16-24s (47.91%). It’s an issue that still needs addressing, as across the country, girls drop out of sport as puberty hits.

Karen – who grew up in Solihull in the West Midlands – is sharing her own story in a bid to break the taboo surrounding periods and inspire more open conversations.

England players pose for a group photo at the quarter-final match of the FIFA women's football World Cup England vs France.

Karen, far right, with England’s 2011 World Cup squad in Germany (Picture: John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images)

‘I think it [periods] always had an impact on me as a footballer’, she recalls. ‘There was a fear of humiliation if you leaked, especially as a teenager. I remember going to one of my first England camps and we had to do swimming and recovery strategies, and I really wasn’t comfortable doing it.

‘But I thought “Well, what can you do?” I struggled to have conversations about my periods with women, so how was I supposed to talk to my male coaches about it?

‘Looking back, one of the biggest problems was the lack of education. My mum would say things like “Karen, you’re just not the same when you’re due on” and that was just an observation from her, she didn’t mean it in a bad or mean way. But imagine if I, and other girls, had known more about what it was doing to my body, imagine knowing it was doing more to me from a psychological standpoint.’ 

In September 2022, after the Lionesses won the Euros, Karen was appointed by the Government to chair a review into how best to guide women’s football into a new era. Less than a year later, and the Lionesses had switched from wearing white to blue shorts due to period concerns, in a move widely praised by current and past players. 



The barriers facing girls in sport today

According to Nuffield Health’s 2024 Healthier Nation Index:

  • Over 1/4 (26%) of women say menstrual cycle and period symptoms stop them from exercising, which increases for amongst 16-24s (47.91%)
  • 44% of women cite lack of body confidence as a barrier to getting more physically active
  • 48% of women find gyms intimidating

And England camps today – compared to Karen’s first one 20 years ago – now take periods into serious account, with tailored training plans and more open conversations on how to support players through their cycles.

Karen’s review, which was unveiled in July 2023, set out a bold vision for what she predicted could be a ‘billion-pound industry’ in the next decade, if the right support and investment is made. 

During her research, the Lioness legend discovered only 6% of sport and exercise research is conducted by and for women. With training plans still rooted in men’s biology and a wave of ACL injuries across the women’s game, there’s been loud calls for change, with the FA working with Nottingham Trent University on the wider issue of injuries in football.

‘I’ve always said I was trained as a “small man”, Karen, 36, explains. ‘Now, I’m really keen to be educated more as a woman, but also as a retired athlete as my body has gone through significant change.

Two pictures of Karen Carney kicking a football in the first and smiling while holding a ball in the second.

Karen Carney was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to football (Picture: Getty Images/Nuffield Health)

‘I was having a conversation with my friend and she had said “oh, I’m really clumsy at the moment”, and I said “it could be the phase of your cycle” and she hadn’t really thought about that. 

‘I’ll go on runs with pals and they might say they’re far more tired than usual, and we end up discussing periods and if they could be playing a part.

‘If only 6% of research is conducted by women for women, we need to do something about it for the next generation. My niece has just turned 17 and I just want her to be happy, healthy and have the best education. I want to be a role model to her and make her path as easy as it can be.’

And could 17-year-old Karen Carney have imagined her talking to the press about periods?

‘No,’ she laughs. ‘It is mad because there was initial anxiety of doing this, sometimes I do revert to who I call “little Karen.” I can hear her saying, “What are you doing talking about periods? Stop!” and all that. But I try not to listen to her, we really do need to have these conversations.’

Nuffield Health run free weekly fitness classes Move Together for girls aged 11-16, specifically aimed at getting teens from low-income households and underserved communities into sport.



Metro’s signing with Women’s Football Awards

Karen Carney MBE won the Lifetime Achievement Award in last year’s Women’s Football Awards (WFAs).

The awards celebrate the players, people, brands and organisations who are helping to grow the sport – from World Cup heroes to broadcasters to those working at grassroots level.

Launched in 2023, in association with Metro and Daily Mail Sport, the WFAs are the biggest awards event in women’s football. Cast your votes here

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Kirsten.Robertson@metro.co.uk 

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