We women all want to feel good in our skin,” said German gymnast Sarah Voss, as she explained her decision to wear a full body suit at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championship in April this year. On Sunday, she was joined by her teammates who wore unitards that covered their arms and legs for the Tokyo Olympics’ qualifying round, making a statement against what they described as the “sexualisation” of women in sports. “We wanted to show that every woman, everybody, should decide what to wear,” said German gymnast Elisabeth Seitz.
Women athletes everywhere are protesting rules and conventions that expect them to wear outfits which have less to do with function and more to do with glamour and “sex appeal”. Most sporting bodies remain conformist and sexist in their approach to athletic outfits. Take what happened with the Norwegian women’s beach handball team in the recent European Beach Handball Championship: After their repeated complaints against the mandated bikini bottoms were ignored, they played wearing shorts. The European Handball Federation imposed a fine of 150 euros per player, although after outrage from other teams and the general public, it promised to do something to change the uniform rules.
It’s been nearly half a century since John Berger observed, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” The tyranny of the “male gaze” is strongest in fields like cinema and sports. For women athletes, it cuts both ways: They’re forced to wear clothes that make them self-conscious, and they’re also criticised if they embrace glamour and femininity, as happened with Florence Griffith Joyner. Finally, athletes themselves are starting to be heard: The Norwegian Handball Federation supported its players and offered to pay the fine on their behalf. Others need to follow its example.