Women's sport is growing in importance and gradually emerging from the shadow of men's sport. It is, however, a reflection of gender differentiation and social norms . As such, it remains steeped in misogyny.
The growing number of testimonials from sportswomen highlights this social reproduction, based on past conceptions, and illustrated, to a large extent, by the sexualization of women, particularly through the attire requirements imposed on them.
The battle against this backward view of women and sport has gained momentum and produced concrete and beneficial results – although not enough.
Here we take a look at how sportswear has changed over the years, and the issues involved.
1. The evolution of women sportswear over the centuries
Sportswomen's clothing underwent major changes between the 19th century and the present day. However, instead of becoming solely more adapted to the performance and women’s physiology, most of the attires evolved towards sexualization of women:
- In the 19th century, sportswomen wore long, corseted dresses, boots and hats for activities as diverse as riding, hunting and tennis. Women had to conform to codes of decorum, so as not to dress too suggestively, but they couldn't dress like men either.
- At the beginning of the 20th century, the Olympic Games Committee controlled women's outfits. They were not allowed to distract the male athletes.
After the Olympic Games, women's clothing was still restrictive, but became more practical. Tennis player Suzanne Lenglen started wearing shorter shorts and took off her hat.
At the end of the 20th century, women's clothing kept becoming more practical. But with the advent of new materials, outfits also became more fitted and revealing and emphasis was on hugging their curves and showing off their bodies, moving away from the practical to the aesthetic.
- At the beginning of the 21st century, the trend continues. The sexist aims of some are not even hidden. In 2004, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said he wanted women footballers to wear tighter shorts to attract sponsors .
Women have no choice but to fight again and again for recognition of their right to determine for themselves the outfits in which they feel comfortable, the outfits that allow them to perform, independently of men and their gaze.
2. Women's attempts to initiate changes
More and more sportswomen are trying to break out of the straitjacket of the outfits that are imposed on them despite common sense.
They come up against a certain form of conservatism. However, through perseverance, some progress has been made and the results are beginning to be encouraging. By way of illustration:
- For medical reasons following her delivery 9 months earlier, Serena Williams wore a full black jumpsuit with a red belt at the 2018 Open. She came in for a lot of criticism because her outfit did not comply with the dress code required by the federation. It wasn't the first time: back in 1985 , tennis player Anne White was criticized for wearing a jumpsuit instead of a white skirt.
- At the 2021 European Championships, the Dutch beach handball team wore shorts instead of a bikini. As a result, they were fined EUR 150 by the European Handball Federation, even though men are allowed to wear shorts.
Article 4.8 of the rules stated: "The beach handball player's kit consists of a sleeveless shirt, shorts and any accessories. The female beach handball player's outfit consists of a top and a bikini bottom, as well as any accessories." ; "The players' shorts, if they are not too baggy, may be longer but must remain 10cm above the knee. Players must wear bikini bottoms that match the attached graphics, fitted and low cut. The sides must measure a maximum of 10cm.
It was only after a petition and months of pressure that the federation agreed to change the rules on uniforms: female athletes can now wear "short, tight-fitting shorts". While this is progress, it is still different from men, who can wear shorts. The rules now state: "The beach handball player's uniform consists of a sleeveless shirt, shorts and any accessories. The female beach handball player's outfit consists of a fitted tank top, short, tight shorts and any accessories."; "Male athletes' shorts may be longer if they are not too baggy, but must remain 10 cm above the knee. Female athletes must wear tight, well-fitting shorts".
The differential treatment is not explained. It is certainly not linked to performance requirements;
- In the same year, German gymnasts changed their uniforms for the Olympic Games, replacing their leotards with full body suits. This uniform met the requirements of the federation, but was hardly ever used;
- Recently, in football, the players opposed the wearing of white shorts. This was evident during the World Cup: "No white shorts as part of the England team uniform. No white shorts for New Zealand. No white shorts for Canada, France or Nigeria - all countries that wore white four years ago. No white shorts as part of the home kit for the United States for the first time since the WWC began in 1991" .
This is not an anecdotal issue. There is a lot at stake for women's sport and for women.
3. The issues associated with sportswomen's outfits and the importance of their choice in this area
The subject of sportswomen's outfits may seem anecdotal to some. It is far from it.
The fact that sportswomen have only very recently been able to have a say in the outfits they wear shows that men still have too much control over the regulation of women sport. Women's choice of clothing is an essential vector of emancipation. This choice is all the more important given that sportswomen's outfits not only influence their performance but also have a direct impact on the number of sportswomen.
Indeed, the requirement to wear revealing clothing for certain sports - gymnastics, athletics and beach volleyball, for example - discourages young girls and women from taking up or continuing these sports.
When inappropriate clothing does not dissuade or discourage women from starting or continuing a sport, it does have an impact on the performance of sportswomen in two main ways:
- on the one hand, when women wear outfits in which they are not comfortable (because they are too short, too white, too low cut, etc.), their attention cannot be focused entirely on their sporting activities and performance. They worry about the impact of their menstruation on these outfits, or about losing part of the outfit, or about a movement revealing certain parts of their body;
- secondly, clothing has a direct influence on performance. This is the principle of clothing cognition, invented by Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky, which establishes a correlation between clothing and self-perception. This phenomenon was observed in an experiment involving white coats: people who wore or thought they were wearing a doctor's coat performed better in mental agility tests than those who wore ordinary clothes or thought they were wearing painter's clothes.
What's more, these inappropriate outfits affect the credibility of women's sport. The differences between the outfits reflect a deeply entrenched sexist view of women's sport, according to which what is watched and commented on is not the performances, but the athletes' bodies and outfits.
In many cases we see "the promotion of characteristics that are not linked to sport per se, but to aesthetic or even sexual considerations. The aim is to make the sportswoman conform to the gender stereotypes associated with women, in other words everything that will 'objectify' her and make her available to men", explains Béatrice Barbusse, sociologist and vice-president of the French Handball Federation (FFH).
Furthermore, an article entitled "The Naked Truth" noted that "The media primarily criticises female athletes in terms of body type and looks, instead of their performance as an athlete." In other words, the performance of sportswomen is not important, only their looks.
A 2008 study illustrated this approach: many of the shots filmed during the beach volleyball matches at the 2004 Olympic Games focused on the players' breasts or buttocks. The study states that "More than 20% of the camera shots were found to be tight shots of the players' chests and just over 17% of the shots were coded as buttock shots, which, it is argued, leaves viewers with lasting memories of players' bodies rather than of memories of athleticism" .
As well as portraying women's sport and its approach, unacceptable comments are sometimes made. Mélissa Plaza recounts how she too witnessed episodes of sexist violence within her team: "I witnessed the prevailing misogyny in this environment. We 'only' won 3-0 at half-time. The guy who coaches us is extremely unhappy with the score and ends up clearly threatening us with rape." "He says, 'You want to be bitches with me? I'm going to fuck you all one by one'." .
During the world swimming championships in Japan, two commentators (Lorenzo Leonarduzzi and Massimiliano Mazzucchi) made the following comments in direct on a national public channel: "The Dutch girls are big, like our Vittorioso" (Italian diver, editor's note), "They're big, aren't they." "But in bed, they're all the same", "This one's called Harper, she's a harpist, how do you play the harp? Do you...?" "Touch it?" "Pinch it" . Both journalists have been suspended.
In some cases, this goes even further than words and takes the form of highly reprehensible behaviour, such as physical aggression, as illustrated recently at the 2023 World Cup with the kiss imposed by Luis Rubiales on the player Jenni Hermoso.
Sportswear has evolved considerably over the years. For many years though, this evolution has not been to the benefit of women. However, voices have been raised to develop clothing that is adapted to women's needs and preferences. The steps and actions taken to date have led to encouraging results. These initiatives must continue, so that the clothing worn by sportswomen and sportsmen is no longer an issue.
 Bump, Set, Spike: An Analysis of Commentary and Camera Angles of Women's Beach Volleyball During the 2004 Summer Olympics: Journal of Promotion Management: Vol 13, No 1-2 (tandfonline.com)