What do lingerie, bikinis and miniskirts have in common? If you answered a teenage boy’s wet dream, you are only partially correct. These three articles of clothing are also all sporting uniforms worn by women athletes.
Women have fought hard over the last hundred years for the freedom to play all the sports men play. And in large part, we have succeeded. The London 2012 Olympics were the first Olympics ever where women were permitted to compete in every sport contested by men. This is significant progress when you consider that in ancient Olympics a woman’s participation was punishable by death.
Wouldn’t it be great if that were the end of sex discrimination in sports? How I wish I could end this post here and congratulate the human race on its considerable evolution.
Sadly, equal participation does not mean equal respect. Women athletes continue to be differentiated from male athletes in terms of influence, resources and media coverage. But today I’m going to talk about another way women athletes are distinguished: uniforms. Let’s start with some examples.
Lingerie Football League
I’ll admit, when my co-worker told me about the Lingerie Football League, I thought she was pulling my leg. For those of you who don’t know about the Lingerie Football League, it is a full contact professional football league where women play wearing lingerie and the most basic of football pads. The women athletes are not paid, although the coaches and managers are. The league is marketed primarily to beer drinking male college students over the age of 21.1
The uniforms in this league may be outrageous, but the players are no joke. Women in this league are exceptional athletes who truly love the game. And they take it seriously, spending at least six hours a week practicing on the field, rehearsing and studying complicated plays. So why would they be willing to play in lingerie? Well for starters, this league is the only professional women’s football league. For these women, the choice is stark. The price of playing the game they love at a high level is to dress up like Victoria’s Secret models and risk having their tops or bottoms ripped right off. Yes, that sort of thing actually happens in this league.2
Until March 2012, the mandatory uniform for a female beach volleyball player was a bikini. And not just any bikini would do, the bikini could have a maximum side width of 7 cm. By contrast, men beach volleyball players wear shorts and a sleeveless shirt. Fortunately, this rule was changed heading into the 2012 London Olympics out of respect for the cultural beliefs of some participating countries.3 While this rule change is commendable, it is a little disappointing that the International Volleyball Federation did not recognize that the bikini might be problematic for reasons other than religion.
Boxing, Badminton and Field Hockey
With the addition of women’s boxing to the 2012 London Olympics, the Amateur International Boxing Association faced a major dilemma: how would the spectators tell the difference between the male and female boxers? To address this serious problem, it was proposed that female boxers be required to wear skirts.4
Badminton’s international governing body faced a different dilemma: how could they attract more fans? Looking to beach volleyball for inspiration, the body proposed that female badminton players be required to wear skirts rather than shorts to achieve a more “stylish presentation of the players”.4
In both cases, there was uproar. And in both cases, the skirt was made optional.
Unfortunately, not all women athletes are so lucky. From beer leagues to international competitions, field hockey continues to require all female athletes to wear skirts.
So much has been written about the wardrobes of female athletes. But the question of what women should wear when competing in sports has a very simple answer: why not the same uniforms as men?
For the most part, the justification goes like this: in order for women’s sports to get media attention and funding, they need to attract an audience, and what better way to do that than to make it about sex. As the Lingerie Football League openly admits, sex sells.
The other justification I’ve heard is that skirts honour tradition. Now I don’t know about you, but as a woman I am always a bit skeptical of any argument based on tradition. After all, I can think of a good number of traditions that do not deserve honour. Nonetheless, I decided to research the tradition of skirt wearing in field hockey (and by research, I mean I asked google). It might surprise you to know that the internet does not have an answer. The best I could find was an educated guess by a long-term field hockey player and coach. Her answer to the most commonly asked question about field hockey was:
“I really don’t know. Wikipedia doesn’t even have a satisfactory answer so that must mean no one does. It might be a vestige of field hockey’s origins in the US. Constance Applebee, an Englishwoman, introduced America to the sport in the early 1900’s at women’s colleges like Vassar, Wellesley, Smith and Bryn Mawr. I imagine women didn’t have Nike tempo shorts back then, so they wore skirts and it stuck. I have no idea though.”5
Now to be clear, Constance Applebee did not wear a spandex miniskirt that is the modern day field hockey uniform. She wore a full length skirt. And not necessarily because she loved said skirt or thought it was a very practical uniform for field hockey, but because in the early 1900’s women were not permitted to wear anything else. Not out grocery shopping, not on an afternoon walk, not swimming and not to the ballot box (because of course another tradition of that time was that women were not allowed to vote). I shudder to think what my life would look like if other traditions from the 1900’s were as jealously guarded as the field hockey skirt.
So why is mandating a feminine uniform such a big deal? The United Nations and the Australian Sports Commission say because it sexualizes women athletes. The sexualisation of women athletes is so pervasive it even has a name: sexploitation. Sexploitation is a serious problem for many reasons, but here are the top 6:
- It trivializes women’s sports.
Feminine uniforms such as skirts draw attention away from the athlete’s skill and towards her body, suggesting that the value of women’s sports somehow derives from the appearance of the female athletes.6 Don’t believe me? A recent study found that sexualized images of female athletes in the media led viewers to see them as “less talented, less aggressive, and less heroic than athletes whose athleticism received more attention.”7 I think this comic makes my point.
- It lowers the self-esteem of girls and young women.
Sexualized images of female athletes in the media prompt adolescent girls and young women to self-objectify and focus on outer beauty. Rather than empowering young athletes and having a positive influence on women’s sports, sexualized images actually lead women and girls to feel negatively about their own bodies and may result in lower self-esteem.7
- It perpetuates stereotypes about women.
Much of the freedom that girls and women feel when participating in sports is because it allows them to escape from the restrictions of traditional gender roles. However, sexploitation of female athletes reinforces gender stereotyping.8 Case in point, I came across a wikiHow article entitled, “How to be Ladylike (Teens)”. The article, which had been viewed 37,556 times, consists of 17 directions to teens who are “having trouble being ladylike.” Amid suggestions such as “dislike dirty things” and “don’t smile too much” is the following:
Avoid sports, especially football, basketball and other manly sports. Being sporty and fit may be nice but sports does not make you seem particularly ladylike, though horse-back riding does. If you are interested in sports, field hockey is a classic women’s sport in the US and involves adorable skirts!”9
- It discourages participation in sports.
The sexualisation of women athletes creates a certain expectation about what an athlete should look like. Studies show that the pressure many female athletes experience to conform to that standard results in decreased body esteem, distracted playing and poor game time performance.7 And for some women and girls, a revealing uniform is reason enough to choose another sport or even no sport at all. Sexy uniforms may be culturally inappropriate for some women, they may be seen as sexist or embarrassing, they may make women feel more self-conscious about their bodies and they may alienate lesbians who don’t conform to the stereotypical heterosexual image.8
- It promotes sexual harassment.
The United Nations and the Australian Sports Commission have both found that sexploitation puts athletes at greater risk of harassment, exploitation and violence from persons within and outside their sport.8 In Canada, this is a real problem. In a survey of female athletes, 40-50 per cent reported harassment in sport.6
- It is darn impractical.
My wife refers to the field hockey skirt as the $40 wedgie. Anyone who has watched a field hockey game knows why. From what I have read, volleyball players have a similar problem. And then there’s the poor women of the Lingerie Football League who are seriously under-padded and who risk losing what little uniform they have altogether.
I’m sure you can think of many more reasons why sexy or feminine uniforms are a problem, but the bottom line is despite the major strides women athletes have made, they continue to receive less respect, less dignity, less worth than male athletes.
This is an issue I care about personally because field hockey, the sport that I love and have played for over 15 years, is one of the worst offenders. Believing, as I do, in equality and respect for women’s sports, I decided to challenge the antiquated skirt rule. What I was met with was anger, indignation, prejudice and, I’ll say it, hate. For my efforts I was chastised, shamed and threatened with the harshest penalties known to field hockey. And I’m dying to tell you all about it. In my next post.
This is Part 2 of the Women & Sports series. Find Part 1 here.
- Pass, Run, Walk: Lingerie Football and Slut Walks: Melanie Persaud http://blog.ywcatoronto.org/pass-run-walk-lingerie-football-and-slutwalks/
- Lingerie Football: So Sexy or Just Sexist? Female Players Say They Love the Game: Juju Chang and Allison Markowitz http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/lingerie-football-sexy-sexist-female-players-love-game/story?id=20318487
- Uniform change for all beach volleyball events: FIVB http://www.fivb.org/viewPressRelease.asp?No=33699&Language=en#.VDlhXn5ra00
- At London Olympics, women’s athletes’ wardrobes are source of debate: Liz Clarke http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/olympics/at-london-olympics-womens-athletes-wardrobes-are-source-of-debate/2012/07/26/gJQAPcrQCX_story.html
- Field Hockey FAQ: Jane Beall http://wlusidelines.wordpress.com/2012/04/18/field-hockey-faq/
- Women, Gender Equality and Sport: United Nations, Division for the Advancement of Women, Department of Economic and Social Affairs http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/public/Women%20and%20Sport.pdf
- Media Coverage of Female Athletes and Its Effect on the Self-Esteem of Young Women: Scott Aligo http://ydi.tamu.edu/wp-content/uploads/researchBrief29_final.pdf
- Sexploitation: Australian Sports Commission http://fulltext.ausport.gov.au/fulltext/2000/ascweb/sexploitation.asp
- How to be Ladylike (Teens): wikiHow http://www.wikihow.com/Be-Ladylike-(Teens)