Imagine watching your child fall in love with a sport. Picture them revelling in the thrill of a good shot, beaming with the rush of competitive success. Now imagine their face after someone tells them that to compete, they must wear a bikini bottom with a side width of only 3.9 inches.
Welcome to women’s sport.
While sexism is a pervasive issue when it comes to women’s clothing, the chauvinism in sport is abundantly evident.
This display was highlighted recently when the International Handball Federation was called on to amend athlete uniform guidelines. Their rules stipulated that women beach handball players wear “bikini bottoms with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” explicitly noting that “the side width” be a maximum of 10 centimetres.
Following a protest from Norway’s national team, months of pressure and an online petition, the governing federation finally agreed to modify their uniform protocols.
The revised regulations will require women athletes to wear “short tight pants with a close fit.”
Challenges in women’s sport participation
Progress is progress, but it’s noteworthy to point out that the Handball Federation’s uniform policy for men simply suggests that shorts not be “too baggy.” If optimal athletic performance can be achieved by men in a uniform that’s not “too baggy,” why are women not afforded similar flexibility?
Women and girls face a wide variety of challenges when it comes to sport participation. One of these challenges is that as girls enter adolescence, they drop out of sport at rates significantly higher than boys.
Research has established a startling 27-point disparity between each gender’s respective confidence levels during adolescence as characteristics of overthinking, people pleasing and perfectionism kick in.
Ever connect the dots and wonder how many girls quit sport because they don’t feel comfortable dressing the part? The number is not zero. It’s time we re-think uniform standards in sport, and design options that allow women and girls the courtesy to compete with confidence.
Gen Z DisruptHERS
Gen Z is disrupting the way we do sport. As we’ve seen with the Norwegian team, the next generation of athletes is not afraid to call out perceived injustices when they see them. They know how to leverage social media as a megaphone and value diversity and inclusion.
This recipe doesn’t necessarily mix well with conventional sport attire which has traditionally been tailored to idealized western femininity.
In a rapidly changing world, sports that fail to take into account our society’s growing diversity, evolving social psychologies and broader cultural reassessments will not only lose credibility, they’ll lose participants.
Sport organizations need to embrace diversity and work with brands to make sport apparel that keeps all shapes, sizes and backgrounds in mind, offering athletes the options they deserve.
Diversifying organizational leadership will help. It’s hard to know who you might be marginalizing if your decision making doesn’t reflect diversity.
When you feel good, you play well
It turns out there’s science to support the idea that when you feel good, you play well. And it could be a game changer when it comes to our approach to women’s athletic apparel.
The term “enclothed cognition” was coined by organizational psychologist Hajo Adam and social psychologist Adam Galinsky and it describes how clothing affects perceptions of self. Adam and Galinsky’s work captured this phenomenon in a three-part experiment where a white lab coat was presented to participants with different explanations.
In one stage of the experiment, participants wearing and believing they were in a doctor’s lab coat performed mental agility tests with fewer mistakes than those wearing and believing they wore painter’s coats. They also outperformed participants in regular clothing. The researchers concluded that, “there seems to be something special about the physical experience of wearing a piece of clothing.”
With this in mind, reimagining sports apparel for women and girls could be revolutionary to their psychological and behavioural experiences. It has the potential to impact their sense of belonging, attitude, mood and performance.
Sex doesn’t sell
Research has confirmed many times over that sex does not in fact “sell.” Talent sells. And if we’re not properly outfitting women in sport, have we even realized the full scope of talent that might be out there?
The Norwegian handball athletes noted that their skimpy bikini bottoms made them feel uncomfortable and objectified. They also explicitly expressed their fear that uniform mandates were turning young athletes off of their sport.
In highlighting the sexist norms baked into women’s sport uniforms, researchers Sarah Zipp and Sasha Sutherland noted that uniform designs are less likely to be centred around performance, and more likely to cater to the “male gaze.”
This has the unfortunate effect of unjustly prioritizing the esthetic appeal of women over their athletic talent. This superficial approach completely neglects the multiplicity of body types and cultural nuances. It’s also completely arbitrary.
Sports are important. They can help girls to grow up healthy and confident and they teach a broad array of soft skills like determination and work ethic.
Ernst & Young found that 94 per cent of women executives reported playing sports — which means girls who play sport are more likely to become women who lead.
While the style and fit of sport apparel may seem like a minor detail in the broader scheme of things, what if it’s not? Let’s let women and girls dress for the role they want to play in women’s sport. And when stale uniform policies get in the way, don’t be afraid to take a page out of Team Norway’s book: speak up and say enough is enough.
Katie Lebel does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.