The sexism crisis in sport of 2021 has recently made headway. In response to criticism against gender-biased regulations, the International Handball Federation has released a new set of rules changing the uniform requirements for female beach handball athletes – changing them from bikini bottoms to shorts. In other words, it is no longer mandatory for female handball athletes to wear bikinis during competition.
In July, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team protested this requirement by wearing shorts to a match. The European Handball Federation fined the team 1,500 euros for their “inappropriate clothing”. According to the official uniform rules at the time, players had to wear bikini bottoms with a maximum side width of 10 centimeters; they also demanded “a tight fit and [a] cut at an upward angle to the top of the leg” – lest they be fined or disqualified. The protest by the women’s team garnered support in the form of widespread criticism of the federation.
The rules now state that female athletes “must wear short, tight pants”. “I hope this is the beginning of the end of sexism and the objectification of women and girls in sport,” Australian activist Talitha Stone told the Guardian. Stone organized a petition against the rules and garnered over 61,000 signatures. “And that in the future, all women and girls will be free to play sports without fear of clothing malfunctions and sexual harassment.”
Last month, the sports ministers of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland wrote a joint letter to the IHF to oppose the outdated dress rules. They fail “not only to accommodate current female athletes, but also to support and encourage all athletes, regardless of gender or background, to stay in the sport.”
All’s well That ends well? Not enough. Even now, there are obvious differences: women are required to wear “tight” and “tight” uniforms, while there are no similar requirements for men. Male athletes can still freely wear regular shorts up to 10cm above the knee “if they are not too baggy”.
“We believe it would have been even better if the rules consisted of a gender-neutral set of uniform rules,” the Norwegian Handball Federation said in a statement.
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The uprising against the bikini bottom uniform was not recent. Players opposed it for ‘several years’ because it was a requirement that distracted players and also deterred some from approaching the sport, according to Norway coach . “With these bikinis, we check all the time if he’s in the right place. We were focusing on other things than sport – and that’s not something we want,” said Julie Aspelund Berg, defender of the Norwegian beach handball team, to CNN.
Women are required to wear more revealing outfits to hold people’s interest, a trend that is actually turning into it. Think of the exploits of the Badminton World Federation, which in 2011 decreed that women playing at an elite level should wear skirts or dresses to rekindle interest in women’s badminton. Or on the eve of the 2012 Olympics, the International Amateur Boxing Association attempted to put female boxers in skirts so “spectators could tell them apart from the men.” Even a decade later, officials told two-time Paralympic world champion Olivia Breen that her memoir was “too short and inappropriate”.
Gendered dress regulations aren’t semantic — they’re fueling the biggest wave of sexism in sports. The effect is such: women are hyper-sexualized, judged on their appearance rather than their performance, their skills are sidelined and their caliber is undermined. A 2016 study published by Cambridge University Press found that phrases such as “older”, “pregnant” and “married” were commonly used for female competitors; the media used “fastest”, “strong”, and “real” to describe their male counterparts.
The ripple effect is real. So is the need to remove uniform rules for female athletes and do them a disservice.