It’s the Olympics and in a year of confinement, millions of us are finding special enjoyment in watching the grace, strength and endurance of competitors.
Clothing should help sportspeople perform to their best. There are rules that cover things like high tech running shoes so that the playing field is fairly level.
But some sports have regulations that seem sexist, either stressing sexy, tight clothing or more traditional feminine clothing. The regulations for men are less sexualised.
Male beach volleyballers are required to wear a tank top and shorts, with FIVB rules stating: “For all athletes the bottom of the shorts must be a minimum of 10 cm above the top of the knee cap.” Meanwhile, female beach volleyballers spend a lot of time tugging at their briefer bikini bottoms to stop them being too revealing. And they wear a much tighter fitting bikini top. There are other options for women but they are not favoured. The uniform reflects the origins of the sport played on the beach, but why should it be the women who expose more flesh to the sun and to the male gaze.
Of course, it’s a turnaround from the original fight for women to be able to swim in costumes that did not restrict their movement; or to ride a horse in jodhpurs not a long dress; or play sports like tennis in clothing that allowed free movement. The U turn has not always been free of criticism, because it is not enough for women to be good at sport – they must look feminine too.
The German gymnastic team at the Olympics has taken a stand by competing in unitards that cover their legs, arguing that male gymnasts wear loose shorts or long pants – gear that is more practical.
In some other sports, ones with longer traditions, like tennis, hockey and badminton, skirts are mandated (or strongly recommended) for women to make them more ‘feminine’.
Some sports women are keen to show that they are feminine – and that is fine unless they feel pressured about their sexuality. Women who are serious about their sport can still get taunted about their muscular bodies or for ‘looking like a man’. It is a difficult balancing act. Academic studies repeatedly show that “Sportswomen tread a fine line of acceptable femininity…engaging in athletic activities is empowering, yet maintaining an acceptable feminine demeanor is disempowering.”
But top athletes are amazing creatures – faster, stronger and more flexible than mere mortals. I love a quote from a top player of the women’s basketball in the USA, Brittney Griner, who is 2m 3cms tall (that’s 6’ 8”). Criticised for looking like “a man”, her response was “Hey, that’s my body, and I look the way I look.”
Judgement based on looks rather than athleticism reflects what happens in wider society. Girls and women are assessed on their beauty and body shape, and are expected to conform to physical ideals, much more than boys. Studies show that girls give up sport earlier than boys; take up rates are the same, but girls begin to drop out by age 10. Two thirds will have dropped out by the time they reach 18. A key reason is that sport is not seen as ‘feminine’.
It is appalling that these attitudes remain. But it is also very sad that rather than addressing the issue and the assumptions society makes about beauty and worth, boys are feeling the pressure to have perfect bodies too: anorexia and extreme dieting for muscle bulk are both on the increase in teenage boys.
What a mess we make of accepting our bodies and celebrating variety in human shapes and sizes.
Let’s cheer all the athletes at the Games and marvel at their strength and grace, whether they leap off a diving board, or the uneven bars, or leap to reach a ball or a wave.