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Recent focus on female athlete “unifems”

posted by One Sport Voice
Tuesday, June 14, 2011 at 10:18pm EDT

Dr. Nicole M. LaVoi: This blog reflects my critical eye and voice on all things sport. I am a critical thinker, scholar, and researcher in girls & women in sport, youth sport, and coach & sport parent education.

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The recent focus on the athletic attire of female athletes, “unifems”, concerns me for many reasons. I write “unifem” instead of “uniform” to make a point. Most of the discussions about what is to be worn, or not, in competition is largely about underlying concerns that female athletes remain and at least look “feminine.”

Aside from unifem concerns, some female athletes like some members of the German soccer team, purposefully pose nude in magazines like Playboy that exploit women so they can be perceived as less “butchy” and tomboy-like (i.e., “sweet”, feminine, and thus heterosexual).

Let’s be clear–concerns, policies and rules about females athlete uniforms are usually about making the uniforms smaller, tighter and a more feminine color. These concerns are usually couched under the guise of “performance” or “safety” or both. To my knowledge, and I will stand corrected, that aside from some initial data on compression wear, very little empirical evidence exists that demonstrates that a smaller or tighter uniform will improve performance for athletes (aside from the razor suit in swimming…which is under scrutiny and I believe is now banned). If uniform size were about performance, you would also see scantily clad male athletes.I am also unaware of any sport marketing evidence that demonstrates that smaller, tighter, more feminine uniforms actually increases ticket sales, interest in the sport, or sponsorships. Show me the evidence.

It is my opinion the discussion about female athlete uniforms is first, outdated, and second sexist.

Let me summarize some of the very recent discussions pertaining to unifems. Reminder: this IS 2011, but attempts to marginalize, sexualize and exploit the female athletic body and female athletes is alive and well, and I think getting more egregious.

UNIFEM EXAMPLES

1. To create a more “attractive presentation,” the Badminton World Federation decided all elite level female players must wear a skirt or dress while competing. The complete NYT story here.

2. The lack of attire for the Lingerie Football League earlier this spring I have already written about (and no, I still don’t consider the LFL a sport, but I do support the notion that some, probably a good %, of the women in the LFL are real athletes.)

3. A female Muslim weight lifter, Kulsoom Abdullah, who wants to complete but keep with religious traditions by covering her entire body, aside from her hands and face, has sparked debate at the international level. Many argue this policy is racist and Islamophobic, in addition to being sexist as male Muslim athletes do have the barrier of covering in public that impedes athletic performance.

4. The Iranian women’s soccer team was in tears after being forced to forfeit a 2012 London Olympics qualifying match this past weekend because it showed up to play in hijabs, and some argue that “FIFA makes things worse for women.”

5. Twitter blew up when a picture of tennis player Serena Williams in a hot pink cat suit appeared on the internet.

So what is going on with the recent barrage of unifem incidents? Why now? Is this further evidence of the gains women are making in sport?

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