Sports, Uniforms, and Gender
Even before I married into the sport, I loved track and field! (My husband ran track in high school, as did both of my step-children. And I’m quite sure that my two-year-old grandson can beat any child in an ”Under 4” race, based on his performances around the house and yard!). The one question that I haven’t been able to get answered in all my years of watching the sport is this though: Why are the women’s uniforms so much more revealing than the men’s?
Today, in many competitions, male track athletes wear what looks like a one-piece body suit –some with sleeves, some sleeveless with pants that are a few inches above their knees. The men are fully-covered, although in form revealing garments. The women? Their uniforms consist of midriff-bearing tops and panty-sized shorts! Every time I think of making my own debut on the track stage it is this outfit that gives me pause. (It is not the fact that I don’t run.) Why do the women show so much more skin than the men do? Who decides what athletes will wear at these events?
This distinction in dress is not only true in the big leagues. One of the powerhouse track and field high schools in my city is less than two miles from my home. Sometimes, the cross country team trains by running through my neighborhood, and believe me the young women turn heads as they run around in sports bras and tiny shorts. The young men? They wear mid-thigh shorts and t-shirts or tanks—although they do occasionally finish their runs shirtless. I have noticed, however that at high school meets—from local to state—the uniforms for males and females are quite similar; most students wear mid-thigh shorts and tank tops or t-shirts.
It is noteworthy that cultural and religious factors affect what some athletes wear. For example, I have seen female Muslim track athletes wearing a lot of clothing: head scarves, long sleeves, and tights under uniforms. And there is news that female Muslim boxers at the 2012 Olympics—the first year women will box at the Olympics—will wear the traditional hijab beneath their clothing and headguards. These women are in stark contrast to many other female athletes who show so much skin.
How well can they compete in so much clothing? I don’t know of any systematic studies about that, but one high school basketball player is breaking records in her hijab. Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, was the first player in Massachusetts—male or female—to score more than 3,000 points in a career – all while covering her head, arms and legs. Basketball, at all levels, is one sport in which the uniforms consist of mid-thigh or longer shorts and tank tops—for both male and female teams. What are your thoughts about why these athletes are so covered up—relatively speaking—and why the men’s and women’s uniforms are so similar?
I don’t know anything about beach volleyball, but during the 2008 Summer Olympics I heard a lot about Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh. The pair was the first beach volleyball team to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals…which means that I should have remembered their names from the 2004 Olympics. Who could forget this duo in Beijing as they won seven consecutive straight sets?
And who could miss their—and those of the other women’s volley ball teams—skimpy uniforms? They wear swimsuits! Now given that the name of the sport is beach volleyball, swimsuits don’t seem too incongruous with the sport. But when I watch the bending over and sliding around in the sand that these athletes do, the men’s uniforms make far more sense. What do the men wear? Tank tops and shorts. (It appears that the men often take their shirts off after their games and it’s possible that their attire differs based on the tournament they are in.) How would wearing shorts and tank tops hamper the women’s games, given that this doesn’t seem to be a problem for the men?
An earlier post on this blog looked at sex and gender in media portrayals of athletes. But even in competition, there seem to be some real differences between how men and women dress for their events. Male athletes appear athletic in their pursuits, appropriately so. Women, on the other hand, are sexualized even in their uniforms. Can you think of sports in which the uniforms support or refute this observation?
In cases such as track and field, can Allyson Felix, for example, choose to wear a more covered uniform than the rest of the U.S. Olympic team, or would the entire women’s track and field team have to agree to such a change? In fact, do the athletes themselves—male or female—have any say in what their attire is? What major factors do you think dictate the way men and women dress as they engage in athletic pursuits?