By Dr Jason Haynes, University of the West Indies, Barbados
In November 2021, the International Handball Federation (IHF) reversed a rule previously included in its Uniform Regulations that required female athletes only to wear ‘bikini bottoms’ in official competitions. This change of heart came as a result of the organisation receiving intense criticism as a result of its decision, in July 2021, at the European Handball Championships in Bulgaria, to impose a fine on Norwegian handball players, who, in a match against Spain, decided to wear shorts instead of bikini bottoms.
Whilst the November 2021 decision by the IHF is both logical and reasonable, it is ludicrous to think that a sporting body, under the guise of contractual terms, can fine and, in certain circumstances, even suspend female athletes who do not strictly conform to their anachronistic uniform policies.
Although, in principle, having visual consistency among athletes competing for the same sporting team is desirable, the image of uniformity must not trump the countervailing interest of female athletes to feel safe and comfortable in what they wear. In this context, the requirement that female athletes wear bikini bottoms and other types of skimpily fitted attire, when not rationally connected to fairness in sport considerations, is sexist, paternalistic and outright arbitrary and anachronistic.
Uniform rules that sexualise female athletes are inherently sexist because they represent and entrench double standards in the treatment of female athletes vis-a-viz male athletes. More pointedly, these rules often do not rigidly prescribe clothing that expose more than 90% of male bodies, but nonetheless make such prescription in respect of similarly placed female athletes.
These rules, which are often drafted by men, implicitly devalue female athletes’ worth by entrenching sexist stereotypes that female bodies are a site of male attraction and are, therefore, capable of being policed by men for men. These rules, in operating in a disproportionate manner to female athletes, objectify women under the guise of visual consistency and uniformity. Rather than empowering female athletes, who have been on the receiving end of a long history of sexist ideologies, these rules rank women’s athletic prowess based on how naked they can present themselves to a sex obsessed world.
Prescriptive uniform rules in the sporting arena are also paternalistic in nature. They rob female athletes of their ability to wear clothing which may not be aesthetically pleasing to a sex obsessed world, but which afford them the degree of dignity and respect which they deserve. They also ignore reasonable individual preferences, which may be influenced by religious and cultural considerations. They disempower and infantilise female athletes and present them to the world as objects rather than the engine that drive sport. After all, were all female athletes who are dissatisfied with their sexualisation minded not to participate in their sporting disciplines, what sport would there be?
Rules that require female athletes to wear uniforms that expose significant and often intimate parts of their bodies that they are not comfortable exposing to the public are also anachronistic in nature and lacking in rationality. Although contextually different, extant uniform rules are reminiscent of a time when the rules of track and field, cricket and tennis, among others, tightly prescribed what female athletes in those sports wore, albeit that ‘modesty’ was the preferred mode of dress. The need to control and police female athletes’ bodies in circumstances where wearing skimpy uniforms will not grant a degree of performance advantage to these athletes is irrational, particularly in light of the fact that human dignity is the watch word of the 21st century.
Although the November 2021 decision of the IHF is a welcome one, it must be remembered that this is not a panacea. It only represents a small step in the right direction in respect of ongoing efforts to eradicate the sexualisation of female athletes. Indeed, whilst the IHF’s change of heart shows an organisation that is, when challenged, responsive to criticisms, it is only one of a few sporting organisations which have adopted policies that reflect the idea that female athletes are as valuable as male athletes, and are, therefore, deserving of dignity and respect as much as male athletes.