Twelve female sports players standing in a line on the court looking upwards
Credit: France Olympique via Flickr

Who decides the length of your shorts?

By Elena Adams

Elena Adams delves into gendered issues surrounding sporting attire and the ridiculous double standards women experience when it comes to choosing what to wear

Women’s clothing has always been used as a way to police women and their bodies. Consequently, it’s no surprise that this can be seen in the sporting community, even in the progressiveness of today’s society. For as long as women have been included in competitive sport, there have been rules and regulations over what they can and cannot wear.  Often, an outfit is considered too revealing, too feminine, or too seductive for men who “can’t control themselves”. Or it’s simply too modest, hides too much, or isn’t feminine enough. It seems that no matter what women do with their bodies, it’s never quite right. 

“For as long as women have been included in competitive sport, there have been rules and regulations over what they can and cannot wear.”

You don’t have to look far to find some recent examples of this. The Norwegian beach handball team were recently fined €1500 (£1285) after wearing thigh-length tight shorts that were considered to be ‘improper clothing’ instead of the mandated bikini bottoms. But why don’t women have a choice in what they can wear, and why must they wear bikini bottoms? It’s clear that this particular attire regulation isn’t required for a person to excel at the sport; men can play in thigh-length shorts and a tank top. So, for what reason, other than controlling their bodies, are women not allowed to wear what they feel most comfortable in? 

Meanwhile, British Paralympian Olivia Breen was told that her running briefs, which she had been wearing for many years while competing, were too revealing and inappropriate by one of the officials at the English Championships this year. Surely, if she felt comfortable in what she was wearing and it did not affect her performance, there was no reason to comment?

Male athletes are also required to wear revealing clothing sometimes, especially within aquatic sports. One example is in diving, where their bodies are on show more than their female counterparts. Despite this, male athletes don’t tend to face the same scrutiny for what they wear while competing as female athletes do. Issues around clothing within sports fall harder upon women as people feel more comfortable denouncing women about their bodies and choices. Women are criticised when they wear shorts that cover them and criticised when they don’t, with no thought given to their preferences.

“Women are criticised when they wear shorts that cover them and criticised when they don’t…”

Of course, a dress code is important within sports. A uniform for athletes allows them to represent themselves, their team, and their country. However, it is equally important that each athlete feels comfortable with what they are wearing. If anything, there should be an unequivocal balance between these two aspects. 

So, who gets to decide? Often there is a committee for the sport which sets competition rules in place. In the Olympics, it is up to the National Olympic Committees of each sport to decide on the appropriate dress code for athletes, so long as the decision is not deemed “offensive”. In terms of the Norwegian beach handball team, that decision is up to the European Handball Federation (EHF), and if proper change is to happen, it would have to be by the International Handball Federation (IHF). 

Statements such as the one made by the Norwegian team are vital if changes are going to happen around the dress code within sports. Without them, these conversations wouldn’t be happening. As ridiculous as it seems, discussing what women should and shouldn’t wear, at least the topic is being addressed.  

Ultimately, what matters is choice. Athletes, regardless of their gender, should be able to choose what they wear while competing and should feel completely comfortable while doing so. The more comfortable they feel, the better they will perform. 


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