Female olympians are often made to feel self-conscious rather than comfortable in their athletic uniforms.

By Lizzy Zarrello.

The already controversial 2021 Tokyo Olympics have sparked debates over what is acceptable for female athletes to wear. During the qualification  round for women’s gymnastics, Germany’s athletes wore full-body suits rather than the traditional, high-cut leotard as a stand against the sexualization of women’s bodies in the sport. When debuting the new uniform in April at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships, Elisabeth Seitz took to Instagram to say, “[unitards] applies to all gymnasts who may feel uncomfortable or even sexualized in normal suits. In our opinion, every gymnast should be able to decide in which type of suit she feels more comfortable.” Female gymnasts can receive deductions for fixing their uniforms during routines. Although these unitards still show the athletes’ figures,  they are no longer at risk of exposing themselves mid performance.

Although it may seem extreme to penalize female athletes for their attire, it’s relatively common in elite sports. The European Handball Federation fined each member of the Norway’s Women’s Beach Handball team with a fee of 150 euros for wearing spandex shorts, which go against the dress code. The league requires women to wear sports bras and bikini bottoms, while men can wear not only knee length shorts, but also tank tops. The team later posted on Instagram the caption, “We are also very proud about making a statement in the bronze final by playing in shorts instead of required bikini bottoms! We are overwhelmed by the attention and support from all over the world! Thank you so much to all the people who support us and help spread the message! We really hope this will result in a change of this nonsense rule!” 

Meanwhile at the English Championship, an official told Olivia Breen, a two-time winning Paralympic world champion, that her shorts were “too revealing” and suggested that she buy a more appropriate pair. Breen later tweeted a statement, “I was left speechless. I have been wearing the same style sprint briefs for many years and they are specifically designed for competing in… It made me question whether a male competitor would be similarly criticized.” She added, “I recognize that there need to be regulations and guidelines in relation to competition kit, but women should not be made to feel self-conscious about what they are wearing when competing but should feel comfortable and at ease.”

Alice Dearing, the first Black female swimmer to represent Team Great Britain at the Olympics, was prevented from wearing her preferred swimming cap, which is designed by Soul Cap, a Black-owned swim cap company whose products are designed to fit hair that cannot be easily managed in a traditional Speedo swim cap. Her request was later denied by FINA, the International Swimming Federation, due to the cap’s large size, a decision that was met with criticism from the public. FINA later responded stating, “FINA is committed to ensuring that all aquatics athletes have access to appropriate swimwear for competition where this swimwear does not confer a competitive advantage. FINA is currently reviewing the situation with regards to ‘Soul Cap’ and similar products, understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation.”

Ultimately, when female Olympians cover up and wear clothing more “conservative” they’re fined, when others wear clothing that are considered “revealing” they’re criticized, and when Black female athletes request to wear gear designed to be inclusive, they are dismissed. Regardless of if these uniforms affect performance, administrators have extensive power over what athletes can and can’t wear on their own bodies. Despite the public support these athletes are met with, they’re still not embraced by their officials. 

Image credit: Flickr