Ensuring Olympic ‘Sex Appeal’ Through Uniforms

Curator's Note

Amongts all the Olympic hype, is the perplexing theme of hypersexualization of female Olympians. There continues to be a a need to ensure that female athletes look like 'real women' and as a result certain uniform modifications exist. In 1996, the FIVB determined that beach volleyball player's briefs be a close fit and cut at an upward angle. The media coverage usually involves displaying a player bent over, with the camera angle focused on her backside and genital area. On March 18 2012, the FIVB announced a modification to the uniform regulation. Players can now wear shorts of a maximum length of 3 cm above the knee. This rule modification does little to change how we view female Olympians and it is suspected that most beach volleyball players will continue to wear the bikini bottoms style regardless of the shorts-option; however, the rule change was supposedly put into place to be more accomodating for religious and cultural requirements.

In 2004, Blatter, President of FIFA suggested that women soccer players wear tighter uniforms (described as 'hotpants') to promote,  "a more female aesthetic...let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball."

More recently, the Badminton World Federation in 2011 proposed skirts or dresses as regulation uniforms for women players. The BWF's deputy president, Rangsikitpho, supported the rule change, "We just want them to look feminine and have a nice presentation so women will be more popular. Interest is declining. Some women compete in oversize shorts and long pants and appear...almost like men."

Finally, at the 2010 women's world boxing championships, the AIBA suggested that women boxers wear skirts, and most national federations complied. North American media was saturated with discussions on the looming 'skirt rule,' and media reports highlighted the AIBA's troubling claims that some television viewers were having trouble distinguishing the female boxers from men, which created a need for women competitors to box in skirts. On March 1 2012, the AIBA published rule changes to its website, and without any grand announcement, released the statement that female boxers could wear shorts or skirts (no length was specified) in London.

Overall, there is a belief that in order for women's Olympic sport to be sucessful, female athletes should look feminine and we should be able to clearly distinguish female competitors from male competitors.

The accompanying slide show of still popular mainstream images helps to illustrate some of the claims made above.




Thank you for this terrific piece of media activism, Charlene. I was surprised, pleasantly so, when I first tuned in to 2012 Olympics beach volleyball coverage and saw the US women competitors wearing what looked like cycling pants, streamlined and très sportif, yet reaching nearly to the knee (and on another day, to the ankle!). Alas, it must have been weather conditions rather than resistance to FIVB regulations, as additional viewings have shown them wearing the briefest of briefs…though still more than they were photographed wearing in the ESPN Body Issue.


Thanks for your comments Maria.

According to FIVB regulations, when the weather temps are cold, players are allowed to wear long pants and shirts (but it seems that their bikini/sports bra style of tops need to be worn over-top of a long sleeved shirt). The first night the USA team played, I think it was 12 degrees Celcius!

The entire context of beach volleyball remains problematic--the gyrating cheerleaders dancing around, and 'mounting' beach balls further adds to the hypersexualization culture of the game.

A relevant comment comes from Saturday August 4th, Globe and Mail (Canadian National newspaper) "when the girls slapped each others bums after scoring a point, you could almost hear the male spectators moan."

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