Are women’s sports clothing more sexualised?

Norway's beach handball team refused to wear bikini bottoms at a European Championship match, replacing them with shorts instead. But the team’s decision cost it £1,300 as penalty.

Are women’s sports clothing more sexualised?
Norway women's handball team wore shorts instead of bikinis (Photo Credit: Instagram / Norwegian Handball Federation)

Norway’s beach handball team has taken a stance against “sexual, uncomfortable” uniforms that they are required to wear during matches. Arguing that the clothes are sexy and not suitable for the game, they wore shorts to the event. But the statement came at a heavy price. The team was fined £1,300 (Each player being fined 150 euros) for wearing the shorts in their game against Spain in Bulgaria.

The reason? The European Handball federation said the “improper clothing was not according to the Athlete Uniform Regulations defined in the IHF beach handball rules of the game”.

What do the rules specify?

Let’s take a look at the rules. In any sporting event, clothing is decided by the committees or federations heading it. European Handball Federation rules say “Athletes’ uniforms and accessories contribute to helping athletes increase their performance as well as remain coherent with the sportive and attractive image of the sport. Female athletes must wear bikini bottoms…with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg.” The bikinis must not be more than four inches, by rule.

Is it the same for women? A look at the uniform for men shows that the rules are completely different for men. Men can choose to wear shorts as long as four inches above the knees. The only rule: It should not be too baggy.

The Norway women’s team called out the double standards and agreed to pay the fine, hoping for changes in the dress code.

The decision of the team to wear shorts and the intense backlash it has caused has reignited an important debate in sports

Why are women’s clothing different from men in sports?

Several female athletes have spoken about their uniforms being much more revealing in comparison to the men’s clothes worn on field. This isn’t just about beach volleyball. Track events, tennis, badminton – all sports perhaps except for cricket, golf have different standards of clothing for women and men.

A sexist approach to sports?

Women have faced the wrath of organisers for several events, being fined for long or short clothes.

Tennis: Sartorial choices of women tennis players make as much news as their game. Though there isn’t any rule in particular for women in tennis tournaments (other than Wimbledon’s all-white rule for all), Serena Williams’ catsuit in the 2019 French open created a furore.

French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli had said it did not sufficiently “respect the game” and banned the full coverage clothing. It was only after an outrage that the tennis federation decided to allow women athletes to wear leggings and compression shorts on court.

Badminton: In 2011, Badminton World Federation, shockingly, asked women athletes to wear skirts or dresses to the event to revive the sport’s popularity.

Track events: Women wear sports bras and briefs while men wear much longer shorts.

In gymnastics, women wear a leotard that leaves a major portion of their body exposed while men wear long pants and tank tops.

Would there be a change?

Norway’s handball team had written to the International Handball federation in 2006, saying the revealing uniforms were insensitive to some countries’ cultural norms. No change was brought in or discussed. The Federation has now said it will look into the demand for a change of clothes, allowing sportspersons to wear any clothing they deem comfortable.

There have been cases on the other end of the spectrum too. Recently, Paralympic sprinter Olivia Breen took to social media and announced that an official at the English track championship told her that her running briefs were too short and inappropriate. Olivia questioned if any other male sports person would ever face a similar situation.

Similarly, in swimming, some argue it’s the other way around for men. While women cover most parts of their bodies, the men do not.

Sporting greats agree that the choice to wear any attire they want should be the golden rule in sports. But federations, eyeing TV audience, want to make events featuring female athletes a show of the bodies rather than sporting performance. The battle between commercial interests and the heightened self-awareness among female athletes is set to continue.