Why You Didn't See Many White Shorts at the Women's World Cup

Women's sports are in a moment of transformation — and that includes their uniforms. At the FIFA Women's World Cup, which ran from July 20 to Aug. 20 in Australia and New Zealand, not many athletes wore white shorts. That's because teams are ditching them from their kits in an effort to be more mindful of how periods affect athletes, marking a huge win for women's issues in sports.

In April 2023, England's national women's football team notably decided to swap out their white shorts for a more practical navy pair. Around the same time, the New Zealand national team chose to forgo white shorts in their World Cup kits in favor of teal blue. In 2019, the US Women's National Team won the World Cup final in all-white kits, but this year, both their home and away uniforms have dark blue shorts. This movement isn't exclusive to World Cup–bound teams, either; the Orlando Pride, part of the US's National Women's Soccer League, also announced their switch to black shorts in February in an effort to "make players more comfortable and confident when playing during their menstrual cycle."

The English players had voiced their concerns about wearing white on the pitch during that time of the month, and let's face it, who would want to wear white shorts when they're actively bleeding? After discussions with the Football Association, the organization finally agreed to switch the color to navy, which still adheres to the color scheme of the national kit.

The team famously rallied as part of an unofficial campaign to get the uniform changed. Striker Beth Mead contacted Nike, England's official kit manufacturer — which unveiled its first menstruation base layers (i.e. period shorts) for the 2023 World Cup — to discuss the change. "It's very nice to have an all-white kit, but sometimes it's not practical when it's that time of the month," the 28-year-old Arsenal striker said, according to The Guardian. "We deal with it [menstruation] as best as we can but we discussed the shorts issue together as a team and fed our views through to Nike."

In addition to nixing white shorts from the lineup, Nike also provided its new period shorts as a uniform base layer for all 13 federations it outfitted at the World Cup.

England's team players celebrate after winning at the end of the UEFA Women's Euro 2022 final football match between England and Germany at the Wembley stadium, in London, on July 31, 2022. - England won 2 - 1 against Germany - No use as moving pictures o
Getty | Frank Fife / AFP

This move for soccer uniforms follows the historic change to the Wimbledon dress code in 2022. The all-white dress code of the Wimbledon tennis championships had been around since the Victorian era, yet it disproportionally affected women athletes during their menstrual cycle. The organizers changed the rule last summer to allow female competitors to wear mid- to dark-colored undershorts, provided they're no longer than the player's shorts or skirt.

Periods have a significant impact on women and girls' involvement in sports. Greater Manchester Moving found that 64 percent of girls aged 16-17 will have quit sports by the age of finishing puberty, while 42 percent of 14- to 16-year-olds say that their period stops them from taking part in physical activity while at school.

When Nike was developing their period shorts, they came to a similar conclusion. In their "Teen Girl Insights Project," Nike researchers found that "by age 14, girls are dropping out of sport at twice the rate of boys. And by age 17, an age at which most have gone through puberty, 51 percent will have quit," Lisa Gibson, senior apparel innovation project manager for the Nike Advanced Innovation Collective, told POPSUGAR. "We know periods aren't the only reason she drops out of sport, but it is a critical component . . . that fear of bleed-through is very real; it doesn't just last when you're a teenager, it really lasts your entire adventure with menstruation."

Elite athletes, like those who played in the World Cup, aren't immune to bleed-through worries. In fact, those fears are likely even more acute on the world stage and when playing at such a high level. "Professional footballers play two 45-minute halves without breaks or time-outs," Jordana Katcher, vice president of women's global sport apparel for Nike, said in a release. "Many told us they can spend several minutes on-pitch concerned that they may experience leakage from their period. When we showed them this innovation, they told us how grateful they were to have this short to help provide confidence when they can't leave the pitch."

Some athletes choose to use hormonal contraceptives like birth control pills to try to control their periods so they don't have to worry about bleeding during important events. For example, a 2018 study of 430 elite female athletes from 24 different sports (including soccer) found that about half used some kind of hormonal birth control, and of that group, about 12 percent said they liked being able to reduce the number of periods they experienced. But birth control is an extremely personal choice, and the same solution doesn't work for everyone. Playing during menstruation can prove difficult for those with heavy periods, including women with conditions like endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

These statistics yet again highlight the inequality affecting women's sports, which touches everything from research on women athletes, available training resources, and media coverage to fair pay. The Brazilian, English, and US national teams have all made major strides in securing compensation equal to their male counterparts, but the fight for equal pay in sports has really just begun — as has the movement for more awareness of how the menstrual cycle affects athletes.

By changing the color of their uniform shorts, teams like England and New Zealand have helped to lead the charge.

— Additional reporting by Lauren Mazzo