Why can’t women athletes wear what they want?
What does “improper clothing” in sports mean? For the European Handball Federation it means that women athletes must wear bikini-style bottoms with a “close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg”(!). Anything else is forbidden.
So when the players of the Norwegian women’s beach handball team opted to wear shorts instead of bikini bottoms during a European championship game in mid-July, they were handed out a €1,500 fine (€150 per player) for being dressed “improperly”.
The European Handball Federation (EHF) said in a statement that its disciplinary commission had dealt with “a case of improper clothing,” adding that the shorts were “not according to the Athlete Uniform Regulations defined in the IHF Beach Handball Rules of the game”. By that, it meant that women players must wear bikini-style bottoms with a “close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg”.
For history, male beach handball players are required to play in shorts that are 10cm above the kneecap.
The Norwegian women planned the act of disobedience in advance to call out the double standard they say they’ve been complaining about since 2006.
The team’s decision to break the dress code was supported by the Norwegian Handball Federation, with president, Kare Geir Lio, saying in an interview with NBC News that bikini bottoms “are not appropriate clothing for the activity when they are playing in the sand”.
He added that when they’re at home in Norway, the women’s team both train and compete in “what they want, like the boys”. When they play overseas, however, they are subject to the Federation’s dress code.
The matter has sparked a new discussion about the contradicting dress code regulations between men and women, with American pop singer Pink even offering to pay the fine for the Norwegian players.
I’m VERY proud of the Norwegian female beach handball team FOR PROTESTING THE VERY SEXIST RULES ABOUT THEIR “uniform”. The European handball federation SHOULD BE FINED FOR SEXISM. Good on ya, ladies. I’ll be happy to pay your fines for you. Keep it up.
— P!nk (@Pink) July 25, 2021
The dress code debate
Of course, what women wear has been scrutinized for years and remains tightly regulated in many parts of the world. Women athletes are no exception. Their dress codes are still determined by “traditions” that are both outdated and gendered. Their outfits have long tried to reconcile the notions of “femininity” and “athleticism”, but this has led to turning them into objects to be admired rather than being valued for their athletic skills.
As a result, women have been for years subject to questionable and sometimes illogical competition clothing rules, where anything outside of the rulebook is deemed inappropriate.
Back in 2011, the Badminton World Federation decided that women athletes should wear skirts; previously, they could choose between wearing either a skirt or shorts. As deputy president of the federation Paisan Rangsikitpho had explained in a New York Times interview, that way the players would “look feminine” and have a “nice presentation”. The rule was later repealed.
Most recently, British Paralympic world champion Olivia Breen said she was left “speechless” after an official at the English Championships told her that her sprint briefs were “too short and inappropriate”. In a Twitter post, Breen pointed to a double standard regarding athletic dress codes and questioned whether male athletes would be subjected to the same level of scrutiny.
There are many more cases to remember worldwide; but what’s really sad is that after many years of debating on the issue, women athletes are still subject to clothing rules in their sport.
Sports should focus on athletes and athleticism. But because they are a microcosm of our society, they’re also served with a side of commentary on women’s bodies and what female competitors should and shouldn’t wear.
We should note that in this debate there is also the “rules are rules” crowd that argues uniforms are just another standard that evens the playing field. That’s true except when the rules are used as shorthand for policing women’s bodies; except when – in the case of the handball team – there’s no readily available explanation for why a governing body prefers bikini bottoms over shorts.
There are, of course, athletes who prefer competing in high-cut bottoms and sports bras. The problem is when athletes have no choice in the matter.
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