Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
You know the old line about Ginger Rogers doing everything Fred Astaire did, just backward and in high heels? That’s also the story of world-class women athletes: They’re doing most of what the men do (and sometimes more), and doing it while being ogled, booed, scolded, sanctioned, fined and otherwise hyper-policed because of what they wear to compete.
Paralympian Olivia Breen’s briefs? Too short. The thigh-length shorts worn by Norway’s women’s handball team? Too long. The cap that the British Olympic swimmer Alice Dearing uses over her natural Black hair? Not acceptable, the International Swimming Federation said, because – in a justification with echoes of phrenology – it does not “fit the natural form of the head.”
What women wear has been scrutinized forever, of course, and remains tightly regulated in many parts of the world. Women athletes are no exception, and their very participation in sports is a reliable trigger for misogynists the world over.
Last week, former President Donald Trump, for example, encouraged a crowd to boo the US women’s soccer team competing at the Tokyo Olympics and said, “Americans were happy” when the team lost to Sweden because he considered the American women too outspokenly progressive (“wokeism” was his lame aspersion). (Somebody should tell him about the women in Sweden).
Some authoritarian and conservative nations ban women from even attending sporting events, and many impose modesty codes so strict that it’s difficult or impossible for their female athletes (or would-be female athletes) to compete at elite levels. Try being an Olympic gymnast if your clothing has to obscure the lines of your body, or swimming if you have to cover your nose and mouth in public.
But it’s not just misogynist modesty codes that female athletes have to contend with. There’s also the flip side: enforced sexualization and feminization.
The Norwegian beach handball team was fined by the European Handball Federation for wearing those allegedly too long shorts instead of the required high-cut, tightfitting, and revealing briefs, with a side width of no more than 3.9 inches, “cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” (the singer Pink tweeted her support of the team and offered to pay the fine).
Male handball players are permitted to wear any shorts that are “not baggy” and no more than 3.9 inches above the kneecap. The difference is stark: Men play in shorts and tank tops, women basically in bikinis. The outcry has been loud enough that the rules may change.
At the Olympics, the women of the German gymnastics team also made a statement, competing in unitards that cover their legs instead of the standard high-cut leotards. The point wasn’t to promote modesty but to assert that female athletes should have greater choice in what to wear and that they need not be sexualized (and constantly wedgied) in order to compete.
“We decided this is the most comfortable leotard for today,” Elisabeth Seitz, a member of the German team, said on Thursday. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want to wear the normal leotard anymore. It is a decision day by day, based on how we feel and what we want. On competition day, we will decide what to wear.”
Both modesty codes and compulsory sexiness stem from the same root: A deep discomfort with women using their bodies in unsanctioned ways. Modesty codes presume that women’s bodies are inherently sexual and tempting. They must be covered up to demonstrate moral virtue and to protect the apparently weak men of the world from their own impure thoughts at the sight of whatever it is the body police have decided is potentially lust-inducing: a woman’s nipple glimpsed during her private breastfeeding, an exposed shoulder, a smile, a head of hair, a wrist or ankle revealed.
Requirements that female athletes don unnecessarily revealing clothing also reflect an effort to enforce gender differences and a deep distress at female autonomy – specifically discomfort with women using their bodies in ways long reserved for men.
Women’s distinct uniforms sometimes serve a purpose – to hold in breasts, for example, that most male athletes don’t have – but they are often designed to signal that female athletes are still feminine and sexually attractive, despite their athletic prowess and physical dominance in a sport.
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Women still have not achieved equality with men – not at the Olympics, and not in any country in the world. They have been competing in the Olympics for more than a century, but it has been a series of hard fights over which sports women can compete in and what they can and cannot wear (male athletes also suffer from these sexist double standards: men still cannot compete in rhythmic gymnastics or synchronized swimming).
Still, there is steady progress: This year, the International Olympic Committee issued media guidance encouraging broadcasters to avoid sexualizing women and to treat all athletes with integrity, advising them to “not focus unnecessarily on looks, clothing or intimate body parts.” It’s sad that needs to be said, but it does.
It would be easy to say “let women wear what they want,” but of course in elite sports, it’s more complicated than that: An even playing field requires some standardization of uniforms, as even a tiny change in a tiny garment can give a competitor enough of an edge to win.
But the sartorial rules should be about fairness and performance – not anxieties about sex and gender.
This article has been updated to add additional detail about the fining of the Norwegian women’s beach handball team.