Female athletes having been speaking out about the sexualization of sports uniforms and really making some noise this summer, showing the world that’s it’s more important to value them for their athletics rather than their aesthetics. 

Dress codes for women in sports are determined by outdated, gendered “traditions.” Athletes’ outfits have long tried to reconcile notions of “femininity” with “athleticism,” but this has objectified women instead of valuing them for their athletic abilities.

However, there has been a recent uprising with the latest Olympic games. Slowly, female athletes are rejecting outdated uniform regulations and demanding that athletics be given priority over aesthetics.

This phenomenon started when women began to participate more in sports. In the 19th century, when upper-middle-class women were finally allowed to play games like tennis, their look was modest and “feminine”, more designed to attract a prospective husband than improve their serves. Corsets and long dresses severely restricted her ability to throw and jump around the way that today’s tennis players do.

At the beginning of the 20th century, physical education classes began to contribute to the reform of women’s clothing. Jumpers and tunics freed the female body from corsets and bodices. Although this seemed very progressive at the time, the reality is that the wide barrel shape of the uniforms was designed to conceal women’s bodies. Every sign of girls’ physical development was camouflaged, “preserving them” for their future maternal roles.

Today’s athletes continue to fight dress code conventions and are beginning to openly oppose them. Norwegian beach volleyball players made waves in recent months for being fined for “inappropriate clothing” during the European Championships in Bulgaria. They decided to wear shorts instead of bikinis and go against the 2014 Regulations of the International Volleyball Federation. In addition to taking home a fine of 1,500 Euros they took home a bronze medal. Good for them!

There were similar protests over the dress code for female athletes at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Switzerland this year.  German gymnasts decided to wear full-length suits instead of the traditional leotards. Sarah Voss started this trend and was immediately followed by two of her teammates. Gymnastics is a sport plagued by abuse scandals, and fighting against sexualization in these spaces is so important.

The full body suit, though rarely seen in women’s competitive gymnastics, actually complies with the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) rules. Competitors, regardless of gender, may wear a unitard, as long as it is elegantly designed and allows them to move freely. Voss and her team seized the opportunity to compete as elite athletes in a uniform that best complemented their movement. Their right to choose certainly helped them feel more comfortable.

These examples highlight how women are beginning to question the way sports federations present and control their bodies, paving the way for other athletes to oppose dress codes that are based on archaic ideas of how women should look–often to the eyes of men.

Historically, women’s athletic performance has been hampered and sexualized, but female athletes are finally making decisions on how their bodies are regulated through clothing. Perhaps now we can focus on their athletic ability and contribution to the sport, rather than how they look.



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