Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images
Three members of the German women’s team at the European Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships in Switzerland recently caught attention because of their clothes.
Unlike their peers, their legs were covered.
They carried complete units; most women usually wear a leotard that shows the whole leg. Male gymnasts, however, usually wear either loose shorts or full-length leg covers.
Units are technically allowed, but are usually worn for religious reasons.
It was a statement “against sexualization in gymnastics” by the German Gymnastics Federation he said.
Elisabeth Seitz, one of the gymnasts, he said it should “give an example … to all gymnasts who may feel uncomfortable or even sexualize in normal suits. Because, in our opinion, every gymnast should be able to decide in which type of suit she feels most comfortable – and then do gymnastics.”
The exhibition was “one of the first examples of athletes saying they would rather perform their sport in clothing they are comfortable with, rather than in clothing that could be audience-oriented,” says Elizabeth Daniels, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado, in interview for NPR Weekend edition. Daniels wrote about the sexualization of female athletes.
Here are excerpts from the interview, arranged for length and clarity:
Some people have pushed back and say that women’s athletic uniforms are narrow and revealing because they allow for better performance. Is there any truth in that, in your opinion?
In my mind, that explanation doesn’t contain a lot of water, because then we would expect to see similar uniforms for men and women. For example, beach volleyball: women play in bikinis, while men play in shorts and a sleeveless shirt. So, if there is a reason to perform wearing very tight, tight-fitting clothes, you would expect men to do the same.
Why did this develop in this way? Why don’t people wear similar uniforms?
There has always been a perception that sport is a male area and that women should pay attention to showing femininity because they are involved in male activity, so-called male activity.
And so we see until the 1920s, in fact, examples of women’s sports teams being sexualized in an attempt to somehow nod their head toward femininity. So it’s no surprise that it took time. And we’re just kind of in a place where there’s a bit of a cultural showdown where it’s specifically questioned by women in sports.
How does the fact that wearing different clothes affect athletes in a psychological way?
We actually have some research on that in psychology. We did studies in which we put women in a bathing suit or sweater. And when you put women in this swimsuit that makes the body stand out, it actually affects their attention resources. So the body then becomes a kind of front and center in our mind, and we have less resources to deploy to tasks we may be trying to do.
So when you think about this in sports, to what extent are athletes worried about whether, you know, their bodies look good in these very tight uniforms, which distracts them from their performance. And obviously, that’s not what female athletes would want to think about, is it? They want to be focused on their competition and do their best.
The question of sexualization also arises here. As we know especially in gymnastics, but in other sports involving young girls there have been problems with sexual abuse. Are these things related?
The real challenge in a sports context is the difference in power between an athlete and a coach or coach – anyone who has authority over athletes, so athletes often feel they simply have to do what they are told. So when you pair that with cases of sexual abuse, athletes may not feel like they can question or talk about something that is embarrassing or inappropriate, and then that behavior can remain unquestionable.
So now that we see athletes talking about uniforms, you know, it could really be symbolic that athletes have more voices in general in a sports context, which could alleviate some of these really tragic cases of abuse that have recently come to national and international attention.
Rosemary Misdary and Hadeel Al-Shalchi produced and edited the audio interview. James Doubek produced for the Internet.