From Bikini Bottoms to Spandex: Sexism in Athletes’ Uniforms
Updated: Aug 3, 2022
For many years, female athletes have been expected and encouraged to compete in skimpy, revealing uniforms in the name of following “tradition” and conforming to stated rules. On November 1, 2021, the International Handball Federation announced they will no longer require female athletes to compete in bikini bottoms. This unsurprising change was due to nationwide criticism and a July 2021 protest by the Norwegian female beach handball team. The players, dismayed by the rules, made a defiant statement by wearing shorts during a championship match. The women claimed they felt uncomfortable in the bikini bottoms, the bottoms made it difficult when managing their menstrual cycle and ultimately turn away many young athletes from the sport that they love. In response to this provocative yet harmless protest, the Federation fined the team 1,500 euros ($1,728). This fine shocked many and sparked widespread disapproval of the Federation. Appalled, popstar Pink offered to pay this penalty, even publicly calling the female uniform rules “sexist.” Compared to the men’s team, whose uniform consists of shorts that are four inches above the knee, there is obvious discrimination based on the gender of the athletes who participate in this sport.
The question is: why can’t the women’s team wear shorts? Norway’s Minister for Culture and Sports, Abid Raja, tweeted in response to the fine: “What a change of attitude is needed in the macho and conservative international world of sport.” Norwegian politician, Lene Westgaard-Halle, asked, “Can you please stop the forced bikini nonsense at your beach handball games? It is embarrassing, disgraceful, and sexist. You are ruining both the sport and your own reputation.”
In response to this controversy and immense anger, the European Handball Federation (“EHF”) donated the collected fine to a major international sports foundation dedicated to “equality for women and girls in sports.” The team responded to this donation through an Instagram post, “Babysteps. It feels so good to know that we have EHF’s support, and we believe that a change is in motion… thank you for all the support – you are amazing.”
Unfortunately, this is not solely an issue with European handball uniforms. The overwhelming sexism revolving around female sports uniforms has been an issue for ages. It became a sizable talking point at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Protests over skimpy uniforms, by two women’s sport teams, occurred before the Olympic games even started. This left the Olympians, viewers, fans, and aspiring athletes wondering: why are female athletes EXPECTED to show their bodies, but men can cover up? It is understood that these uniform rules and standards are designed to highlight femineity and beauty, but what the standard fails to consider is that girls abandon their sport careers because of uncomfortable body-baring uniforms. This policy places tremendous pressure on female athletes by indirectly suggesting that women are expected to be thin, muscular, hairless, able-bodied, and period-free. Male athletes have never been subjected to this pressure.
What is needed? We need more women in leadership positions in the sports world. The EHF’s uniform rule change is one step in the right direction. Other international federations have to adjust their rules to allow the female athletes to choose the uniform that suits their comfortability and preference. These changes can and will motivate young female athletes to remain in their sport and encourage participation from more conservative cultures. If we recruit more women from diverse backgrounds into leadership positions, we will surely see a beneficial change. Women should not be punished for wearing an outfit that feels comfortable, functional, and practical. Women should be allowed the freedom of participating in their sport without exposure to unwanted comments and sexual harassment. Female athletes want to be remembered for their performance and strength, not for their bodily appearance.
Ariana Gonzalez is a 2L at Seton Hall University School of Law who is interning for Emily Staker Representation. She is currently working on research regarding NIL Laws and how they vary amongst universities. You can reach Ariana at [email protected] or message her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ariana-elise-gonzalez/.