home Diversity and Inclusion, Op-Ed Lycra Wars: when one size does not fit all

Lycra Wars: when one size does not fit all

Stella Lesic shares their experience playing basketball in bloomers, yes, bloomers, and the importance of inclusive uniform options across all junior and elite women’s sport.

Have you ever experienced that classic nightmare where you pop down to the shops to buy some milk but completely forget to wear pants? When you feel somewhere between aisle four and the checkout that everyone is smugly drinking in the fact you skipped leg day for at least the last decade of your life? Well, every Tuesday night from the age of eight until 12, I was trapped in that ‘no pants’ recurring dream. 

Before we unpack all of my childhood trauma to figure out the source of these recurrent dreams, I should reveal that it was no nightmare. I was actually wide awake and indeed, playing the sport I loved: basketball. 

But I was forced to do it sans pants. 

The Under 12s Bumblebees: float like a butterfly, sting like you’re not wearing pants. Image supplied.
The Under 12s Bumblebees: float like a butterfly, sting like you’re not wearing pants. Image supplied.

Playing basketball in Australia for girls in the ‘80s meant you wore bloomers or knicks instead of basketball shorts. Interestingly, this was a fashion quirk that was not replicated in other basketball loving nations like the USA. It puzzled me as a child, laying out my jersey and bloomers for each game, why exactly they were called bloomers. I mean, they were clearly undies that I was directed to wear on top of, ironically, another pair of undies. Because wearing just one pair of undies would be immodest right? (For extra embarrassment some areas of Australia even referred to these double agent undies as “bummers”).

Looking back, it is clear to me that the coercive control of women in Australian basketball started early. My ridiculous double layered undies served no other purpose but to humiliate, objectify and control us. Our representative woman wore them, our AIS recruits wore them and our children wore them. Removing pants from female basketballers served as a clear and visual reminder they were less than their male counterparts and definitely not in control of their bodies. 

For even the most Piers Morgan loving reader (thoughts and prayers), the double undies could surely not be defended. There were arguably no performance benefits in not wearing pants—just ask my thighs. 

AIS team photo. Spot the bloomin difference…bonus points for body language. Image sourced Basketball Australia.
AIS team photo. Spot the bloomin’ difference…bonus points for body language. Image sourced Basketball Australia.

The early nineties provided a welcome break to my pantless nightmare. Sure I had to deal with the stress of keeping my Tamagotchi alive and endured 17 weeks of Billy Ray Cyrus at number one, but dammit at least I could wear shorts playing basketball! By this age I was completely obsessed with basketball. Michael Jordan, Michelle Timms, Magic Johnson, Shelley Gorman, Andrew Gaze. As a younger player, naming Opals came effortlessly. It was the golden era of basketball in Australia, as much as it was in the USA. 

Following four years of blissful shorts wearing and chafe-free-thighs, I arrived at my first representative basketball trials in Brisbane. Walking into that muggy Brisbane stadium, the first death knell of my relationship with the sport l worshipped was about to sound. To my dismay, the local women’s team were wearing new bodysuits, just like their Opals heroes. A thin layer of sweaty lycra stood between me and my hoop dreams. I completed the trial and never returned. I could not face wearing a bloomers 2.0 uniform. 

Over the ensuing years, several withering arguments have been made in relation to the basketball bodysuit. It is clear to me that these arguments serve to gaslight those who question the bodysuit’s merit. Arguments such as, ‘it stops opposition players grabbing your jersey’ or ‘you move quicker’. Some say that ‘It is more comfortable’. But if any of us genuinely believed these arguments, or if they were true, wouldn’t LeBron James be rocking a bodysuit and Nike mass producing them for basketballers (irrespective of gender) across the globe? 

Related—Uniforms have more meaning than what we wear

Knowing these arguments are deeply flawed, the final Hail Mary excuse for their return has been ‘but the Opals wanted them back’. This feels very much like the last ditch rationale you make when your best friend returns to their loser ex-boyfriend Kevin, ‘I guess she wants him back?’ (apologies to all the good boyfriends named Kevin out there). I suspect the reality is our elite female basketballers believe, consciously or not, this is what is required of them and what they deserve. They believe they deserve Kevin (sorry Kevin). This is conditioning 40 years in the making and deeply reflective of a culture that needs to be addressed within all levels of basketball. 

It feels good when someone smarter than you hates the same things as you. So when writer, feminist and general badass, Britni de la Cretaz exclaimed their hatred of the Opal’s bodysuit in a recent piece, I felt seen, understood and not alone. As a lifetime lover of the game, challenging a position that has been so publicly embraced by the athletes themselves is an uncomfortable place to sit. Britni’s piece touched on the unnecessary gendered nature of the bodysuit and how this could impact trans or butch players. In short, me.  

With the relaunch of the 2021 Opals bodysuit (aka bloomers 2.0) the players have exclaimed they are honouring their idols and they feel like the bodysuit is their version of the baggy green cap. Something that honours history and their connection to former Australian basketball greats. I wish the Opals had a cool cap instead of full body bummers!

The current Opal’s belief that the only real way they can honour their idols is by “looking” like them, is incredibly troubling and reflective of how a woman’s appearance has historically been valued over performance. If I want to honour Lauren Jackson, Erin Phillips or Michelle Timms, I play with grit, heart and put my team first. It has nothing to do with what I am wearing, how I style my hair or if I smile enough. It has to do with how I play the game.

They say if you can’t beat em, join em. But for me, when I was beaten, I left and started my own. It is not lost on me that now I control uniforms at my big ol gay basketball club, Queer Sporting Alliance. If you want to wear tights? Go for it. Prefer shorts? Great. Skirts are your jam? No worries. As long as your bottom half is a uniform colour, wear what you’re comfortable playing in. 

As you can imagine the Opals recent bronze medal FIBA Asia Cup campaign, in their old jersey and shorts kits, sparked genuine joy in me. For future Opals who want to wear the bodysuit, I can’t take that away from them. If they feel empowered by showing their bodies and like the way it feels, and if this is a unanimous team decision to wear it, okay (send my regards to Kevin). I can’t help but think about the next Opal walking in the door, who is put in the position to conform, even if they don’t love the suit. Will the younger athletes coming through feel comfortable and equally empowered to say no? Will the promising 16 year old athlete walking into their first try out look toward another more inclusive code like AFLW a little sooner?

My drive to play ended when I stopped referring to my knees as left and right, but as bad and good (or bad and baddest). My motivation now is to not lose another kid obsessed with basketball to bloomers 2.0. I want to be able to remember the Opals names effortlessly again. Not because of what they wear, but because of how they play. 

Stella Lesic (they/them) is the President of Queer Sporting Alliance. Their club is the largest international queer community sporting club that you have probably never heard of! They are proudly the recipient of GLOBE’s Sportsperson of the Year, Basketball Victoria’s Fair Play award, Pride In Sports LGBTIQ Community Sport’s award and more recently the Victorian Sports award for Inclusion. They are also pumped to be a member of Cricket Victoria’s Rainbow Advisory Committee. But their greatest award has been the day-to-day inclusion of their trans and gender diverse participants. 

One thought on “Lycra Wars: when one size does not fit all

  1. Thanks so much for writing this piece, it’s definitely something I struggled with as a teen volleyball player. I remember playing in Canberra, we had to take a photo outside the AIS – there was actual frost on the ground I remember just looking down and thinking “Why?!” these ‘undies’ are of no benefit in the game, just more leg space for roasties (floor burns). Many years later i took my then 12yo daughter to netball, it was her first game day after a few weeks of training. I remember she felt self conscious in the short skirt so I gave her some knee length tights to wear under the skirt and assumed that would be OK, but no apparently she wasn’t even allowed on the court if she was wearing the tights. I was stunned, she was distraught, that was last time she went to netball. It’s wonderful to hear someone is challenging this barrier to girls participating in sport – thank you

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