There’s been a lot of talk in the media recently about what women wear in sport. This isn’t a new topic, but the latest round of this debate was prompted by the Norwegian women’s handball team being fined for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms at the European Championships. This story happened to coincide with the Paralympic athlete Olivia Breen being told that her track shorts were “too short”. The juxtaposition of the two stories was the almost perfect prompt for widespread outrage: women can’t win – either they are wearing too little and they should show more modesty and cover up, or they are wearing too much and they won’t attract the viewers and therefore the revenue for the sport. Oh the irony of our patriarchal world!
Meanwhile, I was doing my own bit of research into Taekwon-do outfits for women, when I came across a news item from 2013, which discussed a new outfit for women in Taekwon-do. Not your usual loose affair, but a figure-hugging one made of Lycra. Now I have been practising Taekwon-do for thirty years and have always wished there was an outfit that catered for the female body. However, whereas my reason for this is so that every time I move the jacket doesn’t ride upwards and balloon outwards, thus creating a very annoying billowing effect, the reasons the designer gave for the new outfit were: ‘to take a better advantage of our female competitors because they are a treasure. It is important to show that practicing Taekwon-do gives a beautiful body shape. This last issue must be exploited and must be used to promote Taekwon-do to attract television and mass media interest’. So there you have it – not even an attempt to hide the exploitation and sexualisation of women in Taekwon-do. Indeed, it was even highlighted as the most important reason out of five to have it and this illustrates perfectly the reason why women get so angry when it comes to what they wear in sport. Because so often it doesn’t feel like a choice.
‘Choice’ is the important word here. What women don’t want is to be told by male-dominated sports’ governing bodies what to wear. They don’t want to be told that bikini bottoms should be ‘a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg’ as the handball regulations stipulate. They want to own the issue. They want to decide what works best for them in their particular sport.
Serena Williams is one of the most successful tennis players of all time. She has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, yet is often body-shamed for her choice of outfits on the court, most memorably wearing a black catsuit that was banned at the French Open. Yet Serena’s choice of clothing on court is a statement of empowerment and independence and this statement is not just for her, it’s for all. It’s her choice.
At the Tokyo Olympics the German gymnasts have chosen to compete in a full bodysuit, rather than the usual leotard. To me this makes perfect sense. These athletes are flinging their bodies into all sorts of positions, with cameras zooming-in to every part. It is this sort of scrutiny that can prevent girls from taking part in the sport, or at least leave it when they reach puberty. Why create that barrier? To what end? We know that girls drop out of sport during their teenage years at an alarming rate. We need to be actively asking ourselves why? And one of the reasons we will find is they are too self-conscious. I can remember taking part in a gym display at school and feeling mortified when I was positioned right by the front row of the audience for part of a routine. It was the first time in any sport I’d participated in at school when I felt horribly self-conscious and incredibly uncomfortable.
Having read some of the comments on social media about the Norwegian handball team’s story, my self-consciousness was seemingly justified, as the misogynistic comments poured in. It is clear that there are many men who just want to perv at female athletes and aren’t afraid to tell us. It isn’t just the perving – there was so much crudity it made me sick. It took me back to my teenage self in that leotard, feeling so vulnerable. I had no choice.
So where then, I wonder, does this put, for example, male divers with their tiny swimming trunks and the comments these attract from women? Is this not an example of hypocrisy and one rule for them and another for us? I don’t think so. Sports women’s outfits have too often been developed from outdated tradition and through the eyes of men. They are frequently gendered in a way that sports men’s are not. Often, through trying to reconcile ‘femininity’ and ‘athleticism’ there is a focus put on female athletes as objects whose appearance is scrutinized over their sporting skills. All this embedded in a patriarchal world. The International Olympic Committee has said that in the Tokyo Games they are trying to push a ‘sport appeal, not sex appeal’ agenda. Let’s hope this is part of a wave of change.
I come back to choice. Female athletes need to regain control of their outfits. It’s only as recently as 2019 that Nike and Adidas developed a female fit football kit. I run a sustainable sportswear company, Innae and our non-gen section is for women who don’t necessarily want a fitted top, but equally they don’t want their top to be labelled as ‘mens’. Sportswomen need to be central to research and decisions about what they wear. Then we may well find that more teenage girls feel empowered by sport, rather than insecure and inhibited by it and female athletes’ performances will become less sexualised. We want more women and girls to participate in sport and to do this we must take control.
Author: Alison Hadlow
#thisgirlkicks #womeninsport #taekwondo #sportequality #sportequal #martialarts #fitness #mentalhealthmatters #sport #choosetochallenge
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