Rethinking Sport Uniform Requirements For Girls and Women

BY Zali Yager

Sports uniforms- there’s a particular smell (usually sweaty), a particular feel (mostly polyester), and definitely a particular look. At the basic level, the uniform is there so you don’t accidentally pass the ball to the wrong person- though in my case, you can never be sure! Uniforms are an identifier, and they bring people together- they create a sense of belonging.

Except when the thing that is meant to make you fit in doesn’t fit you.
When it makes you feel vulnerable and exposed- like everyone is watching you.
And when it makes you feel like what you look like is more important than the incredible things you are doing with your body.

These are the things that young people- and in particular girls- are telling us that they think, feel, and experience in relation to sports uniforms.

In the first ever Australian survey of adolescents sport uniform preferences, my colleagues and I found that only half of the adolescent girls (aged 12-18) indicated that they can “forget about what I look like and focus on my performance”, and a quarter agreed that “when I wear my school uniform, it feels like people are judging me because my body is on display”. In open-ended comments, girls requested sports uniforms that are designed to provide adequate coverage so they don’t feel exposed in situations like “when we are sitting down or in an out of the ordinary position that I don’t feel like you can see my underwear”. (Hanlon et al, 2021)

There have been some high profile cases too. The German gymnastics team wore unitards at the Olympics, the Norwegian Beach Handball Team protested against wearing skimpy bikinis, and ultimately changed the rules for the sport. These efforts highlight just some of the reasons why some uniforms are problematic- particularly those that are revealing, sexualised, tight and uncomfortable- essentially not ‘fit for purpose’ for the sport.

Time and time again I see articles about adolescent girls’ ‘dropping out of sport’, and ‘lower physical activity engagement’. So much public health and research funding goes towards trials of programs to increase girls’ engagement in physical activity. But why would young people sign up for sports-when adolescents are in the developmental stage where they feel most self-conscious about their changing bodies. Why would anyone sign up for sport that literally enforces the wearing of revealing clothing in order to participate?

If we want young girls to play sport, and if we want women athletes to keep playing sport, we need urgent change to what they are made to wear. In terms of how much coverage it provides, styles, colours, fabrics, and the freedom to choose what feels best for the individual. Let’s have a whole system-wide approach to making women’s sport more about what it should be about- performance, achievement, and effort- and less about what their bodies look like and what they are wearing.

Scientific theory supports the need for change. Objectification theory suggests that women experience body image problems because they think of themselves more like objects that must appear perfect to observers, as opposed to functional humans. Many systems and structures in women’s sport in particular seem to be set up to literally treat women’s bodies like objects. And not even performance-based objects, like we see with men. There are literally rules about what women need to wear to compete in a sport- rules that enforce women’s exposure of the most private areas of their bodies- while they attempt superhuman and highly skilled sporting achievements. The courageous stand taken by many high profile women, who have to make personal sacrifices- paying a fine, or stepping back from competing in a sport they love- give me hope that we will reach a tipping point that is a catalyst for change.

Changing sport uniforms could encourage young people to engage in sport.
Changing sport uniforms could increase the physical and mental wellbeing of people that engage in sport.
Changing sport uniforms could increase participation.
Changing sport uniforms could reduce body image concerns and eating disorders.
Changing sport uniforms could encourage the next future olympian to keep going.
Changing sport uniforms could reduce the pressure on elite female athletes.

What are the reasons for keeping them the same?

Meet The Author,
Zali Yager

Dr Zali Yager is the Executive Director of The Embrace Collective [TEC], a DGR-status health promotion charity on a mission to help people everywhere build better body image. In her research position as Associate Professor in the Institute for Health and Sport at Victoria University, Zali was also the Chief Investigator on the Goodform project for boys, a WADA-funded, randomised controlled trial of this 4-session school-based program.Connect with Zali via LinkedInInstagram and her website. Find out more about The Embrace Collective on Instagram. Sign up for the EK Support Squad to receive body image resources and support for young people.
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