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2021 Olympics, When Women Athletes Refused To Play By Objectifying Rules Made By Men

Instead of respecting the talent, hard-work and dedication of the sportsperson, her worth is reduced to the viewership she can draw on the basis of her physical appearance, and her on and off court personality.

Instead of respecting the talent, hard-work and dedication of the sportsperson, her worth is reduced to the viewership she can draw on the basis of her physical appearance, and her on and off court personality.

Think gymnastics, and the first image that comes to mind is of a young woman clad in rhinestone studded leotards performing gravity defying moves. Her make-up is prefect, her hair neatly coiffured, and her leotards cut suggestively to make her look sexually attractive.

Think specifically of the male gymnast, and he is either in a full body suit or shorts.

When routines are rated entirely on the complexity of the move, and the skill in performing them, why is the female gymnast expected to look pretty and smile, while her male counterpart can get away with just executing the routine?

The rules of the International Gymnastics Federation clearly specify that female gymnasts can wear full body leotards which cover the legs, yet sexy leotards are so normalized that regardless of what they wear while training, every gymnast picks one for competitions. You could argue that she is “choosing to wear” leotards with a racy cut, but the reality is that most people find it hard to go against what has been deemed acceptable traditionally.

Recently, the German gymnastics team made headlines when they chose to wear full body suits in the competition to unitedly take a stand against the overt sexualisation of the sport. Had only one gymnast attempted to do so, she would have certainly faced a lot of pushback.

Deliberate sexualisation for the male gaze?

Beach handball and beach volleyball, unlike gymnastics, do not even attempt to hide the fact that the female athlete is sexualized. The rules clearly specify that while the men can compete in shorts, women are only permitted to do so in bikinis.

When the Norwegian beach handball team chose to swap their bikini bottoms for thigh length shorts, they were fined and threatened with expulsion. This despite the fact that many women who play the sport have said, that wearing shorts instead of bikinis will permit them to concentrate on the game without worrying about the uniform slipping.

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The official stance by the authorities is that the uniform specifications have been framed “in order to ensure that the athletes have the full range of motion.” But when men can play in loose fitting knee length shorts and tank tops, why can’t the women? Clearly the guidelines on competition wear have been framed presuming that spectators are more interested in watching ‘beautiful women in bikinis’ than in watching competition level sportswomen in action.

This has happened for almost all competitive sports

In case we think that beach volleyball and beach handball are the only sports that blatantly sexualize and commodify the bodies of women athletes to boost viewership, think again. In 2011, when professional badminton saw a decline in interest and viewership, the regulators came up with the ‘perfect solution’ to bring back spectators- show more skin. The Badminton World Federation passed a decree that “to create a more ‘attractive presentation’, women must wear skirts or dresses to play at the elite level.” This was revoked after major push back from female athletes, especially Muslim athletes who compete in professional badminton in large numbers.

Tennis has similar rules. Many tournaments specify that women should wear skirts or dresses, even though most women tennis players train in shorts. A top ranked player, Eugenie Bouchard, was asked to twirl and describe her outfit after she demolished her opponent in less than an hour; is a male tennis player similarly asked to flex his muscles?

Sexualisation of women in sports trickles down to what’s in the market for ordinary women

This sexualisation is not only at the elite level. It permeates all the way down.

A couple of years back, when I went to the showroom of a popular sports brand to buy running shorts, I was asked to choose between itsy-bitsy ‘barely there’ shorts, and skin tight cycling shorts. The male section had the loose fitting shorts I wanted, and I have stopped even stepping into the ladies section now.

Yes, there are women runners who genuinely like the racy shorts and tank tops and believe that they aid their performance, but shouldn’t the women who are not comfortable wearing those clothes be offered a choice without having to sneak clothes out of the men’s section?

This sexualisation is all about disrespecting the work of a woman athlete

The overt sexualization of sportswear is symptomatic of a larger issue. Instead of respecting the talent, hard-work and dedication of the sportsperson, the worth of a woman is reduced to the viewership she can draw on the basis of her physical appearance, and her on and off court personality. There has to be a change in how the media portrays women’s sports- the focus has to shift from overt sexualisation to sporting prowess.

Also, all sports should offer a broader variety of uniforms to choose from, so all sports persons can choose the one they are most comfortable with. This would empower women to choose how they present themselves to the audience.

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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