In what has been a very long history of sexploitation in women’s sport, sporting federations have consistently policed female athletes’ dress codes that often border on being needlessly sexual. Of late, more and more athletes are daring to rebel and challenge these outdated uniform regulations.
As part of their protest against sexualized dress codes, Germany's female gymnastics team wore full-body suits in the qualification round at the ongoing Tokyo Games. Gymnasts Sarah Voss, Pauline Schaefer-Betz, Elisabeth Seitz, and Kim Bui were all decked up in their red and white outfits that covered them till their ankles — a spectral change compared to the traditional unitards with high cuts that usually end around the hips.
They first challenged conventional norms by wearing unitards at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships earlier this year. Voss told the press that she hopes that the move helps young women feel safer and more comfortable while competing. Her teammates echoed the sentiment saying that “it was about what feels comfortable”. Together, they chose to take a “strong stance against the sexualization” of their chosen sport.
Although their decision complies with the regulation of the International Gymnastics Federation, the same freedom is not extended to women competing in many other sports.
Fined for demanding equality
At the European Championships held in July this year, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team were handed a hefty fine for “improper clothing”. The team chose to play in shorts as opposed to bikini bottoms. According to the 2014 International Handball Federation regulations, the bottoms should have “a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” with a maximum side width of 10cm.
kind of incredible to see the difference in the uniforms for the Norwegian men and women's beach handball teams (as required, inexplicably, by the International Handball Federation) https://t.co/aenC5u99Nw pic.twitter.com/Wkyh6W9Xb0
— Natasha Frost (@natashamfrost) July 21, 2021
However, no such restrictions apply for the men’s teams who are allowed to wear shorts. Their previous petition to replace the skimpy bottoms went unaddressed, however, the women persevered. They were threatened with disqualification by the European Handball Federation and received a fine of 1,500 euros. Fortunately, they have the support of the Norwegian federation who has agreed to pay it on behalf of the athletes. Popstar P!nk also extended her support for the trailblazing team and offered to pay their fine.
The history of policing women’s athletic outfits has been a long-drawn battle. In 2011,
the Badminton World Federation invited heavy public criticism by issuing new guidelines that dictated that women players had to “ensure attractive presentation” at tournaments. They insisted that the players wear skirts or dresses instead of shorts or pants to reconcile notions of “femininity” with those of “athleticism”.
Despite being elite-class athletes, women are still forced to make themselves more palatable to the male gaze because viewership of these events is given higher precedence than athleticism.
Intersection of sexism and racism
The International Swimming Federation (FINA), the global ruling body for competitive swimming told Soul Cap, a manufacturing company that its headwear would not be permitted for any competitions including the Olympics.
A UK-based organization, Soul Cap manufactures headwear for swimmers with voluminous hair and is targeted towards Black people with styles like Afros, dreadlocks, and weaves which may not fit ordinary swim caps because they need more space. It was also set to be worn by Alice Dearing, Britain’s first Black swimmer at the Olympics, and FINA’s decision to not permit them for “not following the natural form of the head” was met with heavy criticism on grounds of being racist.
Federations exist to create uniform rules and regulations to ensure that no one has unfair advantages over other competitors. But by creating arbitrary rules that serve no real purpose, they are contributing to many core problems we are grappling with today including the objectification of women.
By taking a strong stand against unnecessary clothing rules, women are fighting the patriarchal vestiges inside these sporting structures and contributing to building safer spaces for the generations that will follow them.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)