home Olympic Games, Op-Ed Uniforms have more meaning than what we wear

Uniforms have more meaning than what we wear

Deakin University journalism student Felicity Smith looks at some recent—and not so recent—commentary on women’s sports uniforms and the control over women’s bodies.

Image is a black and white photo of a team of women footballers. They wear white hats, tunics and skirts.
The Lucas Girls played in the first recorded game of women’s football in Victoria in 1918. They played in white hats, tunics and long skirts.

Uniforms are significant—historically so. Uniforms in sport are there to identify, to unite, to unify the player with the watcher. Athletes can use them to show pride, either in their country or for themselves. Sportswear should allow for both comfort and peak performance. It should also respect an athlete’s right to choose something that they feel respects them as an individual.

The control exerted over women’s bodies extends itself to sporting uniform rules. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen starkly different examples of uniform policing for women athletes.

The Norwegian women’s handball team was penalised for their choice to compete in shorts instead of bikini bottoms—as required by the International Handball Federation (IHF). Paralympian, Olivia Breen, was told by an official at the English track championships that her sprinting bottoms were inappropriate because they were too short.

We’ve seen this before whether it is from recent days, weeks or years, official committees arguing over arbitrary amounts of flesh or taking away an athlete’s right to choose what is appropriate for them. This year Alice Dearing, the first black woman to represent Britain in swimming at the Olympics, was denied the right to wear a swimming cap designed specifically for black hair. Serena Williams infamously wasn’t allowed to wear a bodysuit designed to help with blood clot regulation in the 2018 French Open. 

Before the 2012 London Olympics, the International Amateur Boxing Association attempted to bring in uniform rules that would make all women boxers wear skirts—the reasoning? They said it would help differentiate the women and the men.

So, what is the perfect amount of flesh? What is the appropriate level of femininity needed to ‘belong’ in the world of athleticism when you’re a woman? Why are so many official committees obsessed with creating regulations and rules that aren’t applied with the same intensity (if at all) in men’s sport?

Individual comfort extends past physical uniform and into individual values. In 2016, months prior to Colin Kaepernick’s momentous knee-taking at a San Francisco 49ers game, Minnesota Lynx players donned pre-game warmup shirts with ‘Black Lives Matter’ printed on them. The next day New York Liberty followed suit. In the following weeks, players attempted to protest while still complying with the WNBA’s uniform requirements by wearing plain black Adidas T-shirts (the league’s attire sponsor) but they were still fined—a fine that was more expensive than the average uniform violation fine. This was not about a uniform violation, this was the persecution of beliefs. The players refused to back down and continued finding ways to protest such as Tina Charles wearing her approved warm-up gear inside out to collect a player of the month trophy.  The WNBA eventually rescinded their fines in July of 2016, with then-President Lisa Borders saying in a tweet that they “appreciated [their] players expressing themselves on matters important to them”.

Today, players continue to protest—recently by wearing shirts calling on people to vote for the opposition of Kelly Loeffler (former U.S Senator and co-owner of the WNBA team the Atlanta Dream) after she opposed the Black Lives Matter movement’s placement within the WNBA. The right to protest is supposedly protected under the US constitution. Why is it something that an individual must fight for when they become a professional athlete? 

Canterbury recently issued an apology over their launch of Ireland’s rugby jersey. The men’s jersey featured three players from the men’s team, while the photos of the women’s jerseys used models instead. Why were women in Ireland’s rugby team not chosen to represent the jersey they worked so hard to receive? What was it about literal rugby players that didn’t fit Canterbury’s vision when they worked on this launch? 

I remember playing netball as a kid, and training every week in shorts, or leggings. Learning the sport in something that made me comfortable. When game day rolled around, this was suddenly switched up for a lycra dress coming in at about half a micron thick. Combine that with the need to double up on sports bras, and swirl in the general angst of being a teenage girl. My Saturday morning nerves weren’t just about defence tactics.

Victoria University recently released a study looking at girls’ preferences for sports uniforms. 85% of participants (girls 12-18 years old) said they preferred to wear shorts and liked darker colours and clothing that was comfortable and made them feel ready to play. Although the latter statements held a majority, the study also noted that there were mixed responses for other questions. Underlining the obvious—girls, like all other humans, are individuals who hold different opinions on what makes them comfortable. 

The German Gymnastics federation backed their athletes in the Tokyo Olympics by allowing them to wear full-length leotards in order to ensure they felt comfortable while competing. This is a move away from the usual high cut suits donned by other gymnasts. Allowing athletes the choice is a positive move to establishing a standard of bodily autonomy, especially in the realm of gymnastics—a sport that has repeatedly come under fire for the overt and abusive sexualisation of their athletes.  

The Opals recently campaigned to bring back the bodysuit for a re-debut in the Tokyo Olympics after its retirement in 2008. The iconic basketball bodysuit had been in play since the 1996 Olympics and was worn by the likes of Lauren Jackson and current Opals coach Sandy Brondello during their player days. Bringing back the tight-fitting suit was a player-driven move, just as its retirement was in 2008. The team decided that they drew inspiration from the suits—noting it helped make things like holding fouls more obvious but it also made them feel more connected to the legacy of the Opals. There’s been some backlash around this, claiming that the switch to tighter fitting suits for just the women’s team could be seen as exclusionary. This is a fair point—although we’re respecting the choice of the athletes in question, making such stark differentiation between the women’s and men’s basketball uniforms could be an alienating factor for some. 

Athlete autonomy is being recognised, and their choices are being respected and consistently listened to as they change their uniform requirements. Hopefully, the history of the Opals uniform changes sets up the precedent for constant collaboration with athletes. Uniforms should be flexible. 

So, what is it about women in sport that makes some viewers and administrators believe they’re entitled to see a particular presentation of femininity on game day? We’re slowly seeing positive changes within the world of professional sport, but it’s still as important as ever to question the ‘why’ of uniform regulations. A skirt, a bikini, a bodysuit, or a uniform that covers every inch of flesh—none of these are inherently sexist because it’s never been about the clothing. It’s been about the control of women’s bodies and how they’re presented, and we need to remember who we leave behind and continue to exclude by allowing the control over women’s bodies to continue.

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