Sexism in Uniform
Uniforms have slowly evolved over time as new information on safely and performance comes out, to create the best possible attire for each sport. However men and women wear different things in professional sports, and that difference is often rooted in sexist traditions and ideologies. Women’s uniforms are often objectifying and put an unfair significance on the body. This has a detrimental effect on young female athletes that put men and women on an unfair playing field.
Women’s Sports uniforms have come a long way throughout history. Back in the 1900s, women were just starting to enter the sports world. According to author Patricia Campbell Warner in her book When the Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear, back in the 1900s, instead of trying to accentuate the female body, uniforms tried to cover them up. A photo from 1912 shows that women’s swimming uniforms were made of cotton material to mask their curves. They wore a spandex-like material underneath. She states, “Each stands soberly with arms firmly clasped across her chest, three or four unwilling to meet the camera’s eye, even though they had just won first place. So all those years of decorous modesty had apparently taken their toll, even among these pioneers of women’s competition”. These women were completely covered, but all of the emphasis was on hiding their bodies. This left them ashamed and embarrassed, despite just winning first place.
The fifth Olympiad: the official report of the Olympic Games of Stockholm 1912, printed in Stockholm in 1913, pl. 36
How did sport uniforms come to be? According to DynamicTeamSports.com, the Olympic games were first established in 776 BCE, in ancient Greece. The traditional attire was loin clothes tied with a rope, or more often than not, completely nude. The website states, “Nudity in the Olympic games was meant to differentiate the ancient Greeks from neighboring civilizations and societies they considered barbaric because they believed that nakedness was shameful.” Even at the first winter Olympics held in 1924, in Chamonix France, the uniforms could pass off as everyday wear. According to Susan Sokolowski, a professor at the University of Oregon, athletes wore mostly pants and coats made of leather, wool, and cotton for warmth and protection. The Canadian hockey team wore leggings, sweaters, socks, gloves, and pads. Team USA speed skaters had stocking caps on to keep their ears warm. While the colors were unified per team, safety wasn’t considered.
The first examples of protection came from individual athletes themselves, and not through regulations. Author Conor Heffernan in his article, “The History of Sports Uniforms” tells of the first instance of shin guards in soccer. “In 1874, Samuel Widdowson made the first shin guards out of cricket pads. Although the reception was highly critical, the shin guards soon proved their value and are now an integral and inevitable part of the soccer uniform.” The same can be said for goalie helmets in hockey. According to author Eric Pickhartz in his article “Look Good Play Good”, Jacques Plante, goalie for the Montreal Canadians, was the first to play with a face mask in 1959. He states, “Too many shots to the face had Plante rightfully worried about an extended career, and his investments in his sport paved the way for his invention. Using fiberglass molds, Plante constructed a thin protective mask with eyeholes and an opening for the mouth.” These two athletes might have been the first to come up with ways to keep themselves safe in play, but they certainly weren’t the last.
It wasn’t until later in the 20th century, that other sports started to prioritize the safety and functionality of the athlete. Football uniforms incorporated thick wool and leather for more cushion. Helmets were now required in all contact sports, including hockey, football, baseball, and lacrosse. Uniforms became tighter to the body, in order to prioritize precision and movement. Most professional uniforms now are made of this synthetic material that is mapped specifically for the body. You see this type of uniform in basketball, biking, running, and many other movement essential sports. According to a study conducted by Wang F, et al. of Soochow University, when comparing body mapping sportswear to traditional cotton uniforms, body mapping sportswear is better for athlete performance. He states, “Results revealed that the moisture-wicking shirt lowered the core temperature during the exercise and the highly permeable shirt can also help in lowering the core temperature.” Keeping a cooler temperature not only keeps an athlete safer but also allows them to keep performing for longer periods of time.
Today’s uniforms look much different, and they are way safer. When designing modern uniforms, Sokolowski says, “Sports companies will assemble teams of experts in design, pattern engineering, development, materials science, aerodynamics, data science, biomechanics and physiology to bring new ideas to fruition.” They also take the governing rules set in place, brand deals, and landscapes into consideration when designing these uniforms. Sokolowski uses ski jumping as an example. The most important thing to take into consideration for ski jumping is speed. The athlete needs to stay warm, be able to move, and have protection against potential crashes. The modern uniforms are made of synthetic polymers that are fine-tuned to be a lot like wetsuits, spongy and insulating. There are International Ski Federation Rules, that contain requirements on how tight and wind-resistant a uniform can be. “Every four years, the process will start over again, to make sure the next generation of Olympians is outfitted in the best uniforms possible to win gold,” Sokolowski states.
Almost every part of the uniform in sports has a reason and purpose behind it. They have been tweaked and changed throughout the years in hopes of bettering the performance of those who wear them. Sports uniforms are intentional, and all the changes made have a cause; to protect the player and enhance their performance. However, there are certain features on women’s uniforms that serve ultimately no purpose and only exist because of tradition. Molly Galdieri, staff reporter for The Forecast states in her article “Skirts or Shorts, the Ultimate Debate” that traditions in uniform are holding women back. She states, “For many generations, women were thought of as “masculine” if they played a sport, so they wore slim-fitting clothes and skirts to obscure this “masculinity”. The difference in male and female uniforms was based on an ideal that does not properly represent today’s growing generations, and should therefore be discontinued.”
Women’s uniforms started out as a way to conceal the athlete, instead of assisting them. Women donned big hats and long skirts in order to cover up, and still remain feminine. As time went on, these skirts became shorter and shorter. Short skirts are still present in a multitude of sports today; lacrosse, tennis, golf, and field hockey. These types of uniforms have no apparent purpose, except for being feminine. In her article, “Does Femininity Matter in Sports”, Hailey Robinson touches on the idea that being an athlete is different than being a female athlete. “In a world where athleticism is seen as inherently male, femininity does set female athletes apart from the view of the neutral athlete. A male athlete can just be an athlete, with no qualifier, but a female athlete is always a female athlete. To exist in sports, their femininity is always emphasized.” Sports as a whole are perceived as male-defined, so throughout history women have appeared feminine to set themselves apart. Skirts are inherently female, so women have continued to wear them even in the sports world, where they serve no functional purpose.
The 1900s cotton uniforms are almost unrecognizable compared to the modern biometric suits seen today. These types of evolutions have been made in all sports, but now instead of being forced to cover up, women are often forced to exhibit their sexuality. The most recognizable example of a sexist sports uniform is in sand volleyball. Since the London Olympics of 2012, women are not required to wear bikinis, however, most women still do. An ESPN article written by Jimmy Golen assured audiences that the bikinis were not going anywhere. He states, “Fear not, fans of beach volleyball — or of the women who play it. Top players say they won’t be switching from the beach.” He goes on to explain that many women prefer the bikini uniform since it offers fewer areas for sand to get stuck. Golen then states, “It doesn’t hurt the TV audiences, either, as television producers zoom in for close-ups of the women signaling to each other by holding up their fingers against their behinds.” This entire article is celebrating the fact that women will continue to wear bikinis, and not on the rule being changed itself, giving women the opportunity to wear what they want. If that were to be the case, men would be wearing the same thing.
Norwegian Handball Federation
The rule rebrand for the London 2012 Olympics was a massive change that was seemingly left uncelebrated by western culture. Many other countries like Israel and Turkey took advantage of this rule change and started wearing long sleeves and pants, going back to the old ways of uniform. The US Olympic women’s team however remains unchanged. While it is important to note that this is their choice, it raises the question of why. Why did certain cultures react differently? Author Heather Reid and Micheal Austin in their book, The Olympics and Philosophy, report that several American female athletes in sand volleyball feel immense pressure to look their best during the game. They state, “Some elite players have had their breast enlarged and overtrained their stomach muscles to obtain a “washboard” abdominal look – because they desire to fit the expected ideal beach volleyball image.” The uniforms were changed, but the pressure to remain “sexy” was ever-present for western female athletes.
The actual sports uniform is never taken into account, only the way that the women look wearing it. Author Eric Anderson states in his article, “The Changing Relationship between Men’s Homosexuality and Sport” that the reason women are presented as feminine as they are is that if they are viewed as powerful and strong, it threatens male hegemony. “The Badminton World Federation (BWF) instituted a rule that women must wear skirts, and an American Deputy President of the BWF defended the rule by claiming, “We just want them to look feminine and have a nice presentation so women will be more popular” The practicality of skirts is never taken into question, only the presentation. Women’s athletic abilities are often undermined for their physical qualities, and that is sexist.
Because of this sexist idea that female athletes are outside of the “norm”, attention is placed on the women’s bodies and that harms the athlete. Fitness accounts on social media, sports magazines, and even famous athletes all focus their attention on remaining “fashionable” in athletics. Influencers show off their bodies and swear by certain brands. Sports Illustrated, the United State’s biggest sports magazine rarely doesn’t cover a half-naked model on the front. This type of coverage negatively affects young female athletes. “Nearly half of female athletes – 45% – particularly in sports where a lean body is considered important, have disordered eating or an eating disorder.” says author Christine Yu, in her article “We need to Talk about Body Image in Female Athletes”. “You may compare yourself to other athletes you see on social media or to professional athletes. As a result, it’s easy to believe that you need a certain body type to succeed.”
According to author Lara Bullens, In the most recent Charter published by the International Olympic Committee, they say that the International Federation has “sole and exclusive authority to prescribe and determine the clothing and uniforms to be worn, and the equipment to be used, by the members of their delegations on the occasion of Olympic Games.” The criteria they have for uniforms are withheld upon request, as Bullens reached out to try and get an answer, and received no response. It is suspicious that the Federation would withhold this type of information, since if they were proud of their regulations there would be nothing to hide.
One Professor at the University of Toronto, draws the conclusion that the reason the criteria for uniforms are withheld, is because the Federation knows they would receive backlash for being sexist. Helen Jefferson Lenskyj states in her book, The Olympic Games: a Critical Approach, that uniform decisions are based on practicality, tradition, and gender differentiation. The International Federations say their decisions are based on fairness and performance. However, Lenskyj goes on to say, “Sports judged on aesthetics like figure skating has clothing rules consistent with judges’ often stereotypical views of what a ‘feminine’ skater should look like. Women’s beach volleyball uniform regulations are based solely on heterosexual sex appeal.” The idea of having rules in place solely to regulate the way a woman looks in her uniform is sexist. While these conclusions are her own, it is apparent that the Federations refusal to talk about their regulations hides their true intentions.
The sexualization of women in media has been downplayed ever since it began, but it’s so much more impactful than they realize. Sports uniforms are sexist, as woman have the inablity of chosing to wear what they are comfortable in. The International Olympic Committee does not have the authority to establish or enforce uniform regulations. That responsibility belongs to International Federations for each individual sport to regulate what’s appropriate to wear in each gendered group. There’s nothing empowering about being forced to wear something you are uncomfortable with. The sexist rules and regulations against women have detrimental and lasting effects on young athletes, and for years they have been spoken out against. The Federations lack of change and even response against sexist allegatons, show that they do not care and are not willing to change.
In the 2021 Euro tournament, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team challenged this idea by refusing to wear bikini bottoms during their game. According to ABC news writer Caroline Radnofsky, the team was fined 1,500 euros, $1,700 USD for “improper clothing” by the International Federation. “While male players are allowed to play in tank tops and shorts no longer than 4 inches above the knee, women are required to wear midriff-baring tops and bikini bottoms ‘with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg,’ and a maximum side width of 4 inches, according to International Handball Federation regulations.” These women refused to wear bikini bottoms and were punished for it. They broke the International Federations rules by trying to wear something more comfortable, and more secure. What these women did to stand up for themselves is admirable, but the men’s silent response is apparent that the regulating of women’s bodies is the status quo.
Even when women appeal to these rules and regulations, they are often still criticized for it. Olivia Breen, a Paralympic athlete at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games, was told by a female Official at the English Championships that her shorts were too short and inappropriate. In an interview with Sky News Breen stated, “I didn’t know what to say. I just looked speechless and I just said to her, ‘are you joking?’ And she said ‘no, I think you should consider buying a pair of shorts.’ I just looked at my teammate and I just didn’t know what to say.” Breen had worn this style of shorts for the past 6 years of her competing. They had been specifically designed for competing in, and are up to all the regulations from the Federation. Women face these double standards in all aspects of sports, even at the highest level. If they try and wear what they are comfortable in, they are fined. If they adhere to the rules, they are told to cover up. It’s a lose-lose scenario. The over-sexualization of women in sports does nothing to benefit them, it only satisfies the viewer.
Either way, for women it’s a lose-lose situation. If women cover up or if they are almost completely nude, attention is always put onto their bodies. The argument goes back and forth between saying uniforms are too tight and revealing, to the fact that it’s necessary for some sports. In running and swimming you want to be as aerodynamic as possible, so remaining sleek is a key component. In volleyball, precision when jumping and spiking is important to the game, so unnecessary fabric could inhibit performance. The entire argument is overblown, as there haven’t been any solutions or new ideas. Everyone knows uniforms objectify the body, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t sports where this doesn’t occur. However, there is one place where the emphasis is rarely placed on the body, and that’s in men’s sports.
Men do not have to deal with objectification while participating in sports. Their athleticism is never questioned based on their appearance. The closest example of men wearing the exact same uniform as women is in American soccer. Both the men and women wear relatively the same thing; a jersey, and longer shorts. There is no apparent difference between the two gender’s uniforms. American Soccer has the closest playing field for men and women, in fact, in 2012 Women’s American Soccer had a 22% higher viewership compared to men’s for their World Cup final according to author Abigail Johnson Hess for CNBC news. In her article, “US viewership of the 2019 Women’s World Cup final was 22% higher than the 2018 men’s final” she states, “According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. women’s soccer games have generated more revenue for the USSF than U.S. men’s games over the past three years”. The women actually outperformed the men when it came to ratings, and they had no advantage with sexy uniforms. It wasn’t the eye candy keeping people watching, it was the women’s skill and athleticism.
But how much damage can these type of events have on female athletes who view them? The pressure to have the same body type as the female athletes we see on Television and social media grows stronger every day. Female athletes adhere to these standards and strive to perfect their physical appearance. Emily Liang, the writer for the Inquiries Journal, argues that while critics may say that athletes can increase their self-esteem by becoming empowered in their sexuality, the idea that an athlete needs to cater their bodies to the masses in order to be empowered directly contradicts this idea. “As long as she complies with the media’s demands, she cannot be genuine to her own identity. By emphasizing female athletes’ sex appeal over athleticism and encouraging the athletes to do the same, the media’s sexualization takes away self-esteem and individuality from women’s sports.”
As more women start to speak up about superficial criticisms against their bodies, we start to see just how impactful these sexist regulations can be. When the media is focused so much on their bodies, female athletes’ self-esteem is reduced and it leads to an unhealthy obsession with their body image. According to author Margot Rittenhouse, 45% of female athletes struggle with some form of disordered eating. In comparison, only 10% of male athletes struggle with the same disordered eating. “The negative impacts of eating disorder behaviors on the female athlete are so common that treatment professionals refer to them as “Female Athlete Triad” syndrome, which specifies three consequences as menstrual dysfunction, low energy availability, and reduced bone mineral density. Approximately 4.3% of female athletes struggle with this syndrome”.
The Female Athlete Triad is directly tied to when a female athlete becomes so obsessed with athletic training and her body, that it leads to harmful behaviors. It occurs when there is a combination of disordered eating, lack of menstruation, and osteoporosis due to overexercise, dieting, and or mental strain. These three repercussions are so common that they are named the Female Athlete Triad, and are prevalent in 15-62% of female college athletes, according to Julia Hobart of the American Academy of Family Physicians. The medical condition often goes unnoticed, as the women afflicted do not wish to be stopped. They are convinced it will better their performance and looks, without realizing just how deadly their behaviors are. As a result, the body starts to break down, and the lack of bone density leads to stress fractures and breaks. Repeated fractures do not heal, and eventually, the body will give out. The lack of nutrients, stress on the bones, and increased strain on the heart and lungs to keep the body functioning without food leads to death.
You cannot deny that the over-sexualization of women in sports has an impact. Thousands of women are affected daily, and around 10,200 people die from an eating disorder every year. The objectification of women in sports has deadly consequences, and there is nothing empowering about feeding into heterosexual desires. However, things can always still change. As of early 2022, Women’s Handball players can now wear shorts and shirts, as well as the previous bikinis. Those who were outraged at the Norwegian team being fined, have influenced a step forward for women everywhere. Those that got angry and raised their voices on social media, made a real difference. It is not too late to overturn sexist rulings and allow women the chance to be comfortable in the presentation of their athletic skills.
AbigailJHess. “US Viewership of the 2019 Women’s World Cup Final Was 22% Higher than the 2018 Men’s Final.” CNBC, CNBC, 10 July 2019,
Anderson, Eric. “The Changing Relationship between Men’s Homosexuality and Sport.”
BULLENS, Lara. “Tokyo Olympics: Female Athletes Face Double Standards over Uniforms.” France 24, France 24, 22 July 2021,
Daniels EA. Sex Objects, Athletes, and Sexy Athletes: How Media Representations of Women Athletes Can Impact Adolescent Girls and College Women. Journal of adolescent research. 2009;24(4):399-422. doi:10.1177/0743558409336748
Galdieri, Molly. “Skirts or Shorts – The Ultimate Debate.” The Forecast,
Golen, Jimmy. “Bikinis Here to Stay in Beach Volleyball.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 9 Apr. 2012,
Harrison, Frances Rosseland. “Volleyball, but Make It Sexy: Mediated … “– Duke University.
Heffernan, Conor. “Guest Post: The History of Sports Uniforms.” Physical Culture Study, 21 Nov. 2019, .
Hobart, Julie A., and Douglas R. Smucker. “The Female Athlete Triad.” American Family Physician, 1 June 2000
Ilchi, Layla. “A Closer Look at the Tokyo Summer Olympics Uniform Controversies.” WWD, 27 July 2021,
Jefferson Lenskyj H. The Olympic Games : a Critical Approach. Emerald Publishing Limited; 2020.
Liang, Emily. “The Media’s Sexualization of Female Athletes: A Bad Call for the Modern Game.” Inquiries Journal, Inquiries Journal, 1 Oct. 2011,
Pickhartz, Eric Michael. “Look Good, Play Good The World of American Sports Uniforms.” Texas Scholar Works, 2011
Radnofsky, Caroline. “Norwegian Women’s Beach Handball Team Fined for Not Playing in Bikinis.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 20 July 2021,
Reid, Heather Lynne, and Michael W. Austin. “The Olympics and Philosophy.” University Press of Kentucky, 2012. Warner, Patricia Campbell. “WOMEN ENTER THE Olympics: A Sleeker Swimsuit.” When the Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth Of American Sportswear, University of Massachusetts Press, 2006, pp. 84–103. JSTOR Accessed 17 Oct. 2022.
Rittenhouse, Margot. “Eating Disorders in Athletes.” Eating Disorder Hope, 14 July 2022,
Robinson, Hailey. “Does Femininity Matter in Women’s Sports?” The Daily of the University of Washington, 8 Apr. 2018,
Sokolowski, Susan L. “How Olympic Uniforms Are Engineered to Win.” Industrial Equipment News, 18 July 2019,
Sephton, Connor. “Olivia Breen: Paralympic World Champion ‘Speechless’ after Being Told Her Sprint Briefs ‘Too Short and Inappropriate’.” Sky News, Sky, 19 July 2021,
“The Evolution of Sports Uniforms.” Dynamic Team Sports
Wang F, Cai X, Zhang C, Shi W, Lu Y, Song G. “Assessing the performance of a conceptual tight-fitting body mapping sportswear (BMS) kit in a warm dry environment.” Fibers and polymers.
Yu, Christine. “We Need to Talk about Body Image in Female Athletes.” WebMD, WebMD,
Oni, I have removed your post from Feedback Please.
You will receive feedback AFTER you make a specific request for the sort of critique you’re looking for. Be as clear as possible what I should be reading for. I cannot provide blanket feedback at this late date.
Sorry, forgot again. I would like feedback on how my 3 papers flow together, and if I need to rewrite them to fit more concisely.
We did touch on a lot of this in our Zoom today. If you need more help on the “flow” question, please drop your post back into Feedback Please, Oni. I’ll be happy to help. I’ll send the Zoom recording when it’s available so you’ll know whether to ask or not.
I only put this back in feedback please cause I’m wondering if I put the picture in right. I added a little source underneath the picture, but do I need to add it to the reference page as well?
Just kidding, I would also like feedback on the flow of my paper, since I changed up the order of my paragraphs. I also added an intro, so those three things are all I need feedback on; the pictures, intro, and order/sequence.
You have the quirkiest sense of humor. 😉
The handball photo is toooo perfect.
Impressive work, Oni. I’m delighted to see how far you’ve progressed since your early drafts. You do a particularly good job of integrating the many sources into your own commentary.
Your Introduction must be new, since it contained, before I fixed them, two typographical misspellings, and still contains a grammar error of subject/verb disagreement.
You do still need to clean up some quotation mark punctuation errors, if you’re willing. Do a global search for “. and “, and fix any that you find.
Here’s a different punctuation problem I think has to be resolved with single quotes:
ny. “The Badminton World Federation (BWF) instituted a rule that women must wear skirts, and an American Deputy President of the BWF defended the rule by claiming, “We just want them to look feminine and have a nice presentation so women will be more popular” The
If the outside quote begins with The and ends with popular, you need both ending punctuation and single quotes for the inside quotation.
One more thing. I hope this doesn’t sound like a rude joke. Is it possible the British team at Stockholm was trying to disguise the gender of their far-right swimmer?