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From Hijabs to Bikinis - What Does Bare Skin Have to do With Women's Sports?

Jul 5, 2011 at 2:11 PM Chime in now


On the radio this morning, I heard an interview with social worker and activist Farrah Khan about a demonstration in support of Muslim women who are being prevented from wearing a hijab during World Cup and in other soccer matches. She is part of a movement called Right2Wear, that is organizing solidarity soccer games across the country this Thursday.

While she is against enforced veiling in countries like Iran, Kahn – who does not wear a headscarf - believes that women should be allowed to wear what they want in sports. And she blasts what she perceives to be an obsession with Muslim women’s clothing.  

But our collective fixation on women’s clothing – especially in professional sports – has been making the news for a while, now. I’ve personally had a chuckle at the “professional” bikini uniform of pro Beach Volleyball players, but I was pretty incensed this Spring when I read that the Badminton World Federation decreed that women must wear skirts or dresses to play at the elite level, in order to boost ratings for the sport and create a more “attractive presentation.” Fortunately, this decision is now under review. Shuttlecock, indeed.

Most recently, the Women's Tennis Association has launched a new "Strong is Beautiful" advertising campaign, featuring the taught and shiny bodies of female tennis stars, featuring 38 players from Serena Williams to Li Na to Petra Kvitova – swinging in slow motion, with romantic music and billowing dresses. The WTA insists that these super-feminine ads promote the grit and artistry of these women. And the ads are beautiful. But cynics can’t deny the fact that sexualizing and softening the female players feels like pandering for viewership and advertising dollars.

And then there was soccer: This month, for the Women's World Cup of soccer, five members of the German team posed in German Playboy in their underwear. "We want to disprove the cliché that all female footballers are butch," German midfielder Kristina Gessat told the magazine. "The message is: look, we are very normal — and lovely — girls!" It’s a shame the chorus of outrage following Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt in her 1999 victory didn’t garner words like ‘lovely’. But perhaps that killer penalty kick and sports bra wasn’t femme enough for the crowd?

To be clear, I respect athletic women who love displaying their fit and foxy frames to the world - so preferable to the starved models on the runway. And I equally respect the strong women who chose to cover their your skin for cultural reasons, despite pressure to conform. But I can't help but wonder how much "choice" factors into these decisions. I keep imagining a the kick-ass, butch soccer player who feels pressure to wear an awkward push-up bra and pouty lip gloss for an ad campaign. Or the secular-minded woman who is pressured by religious family and peers to be modest, and to stifle her sexuality.

Which brings us back to the Right2Wear campaign. In sports there are clear and established rules. And no measure of skin exposure can alter the trajectory a good kick or swing. Women should absolutely be able to wear what they want - whether it’s a Hijab or a scanty bikini bottoms – to play their sport. But for these women outside of the arena, it’s not always so clear where the rule of conduct – and the pressure – originates.


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