Over the weekend, at the European Beach Handball Championships in Varna, Bulgaria, Norway’s women’s beach handball team staged a protest: They wore shorts while competing in the bronze medal game.
According to the rules put in place by the International Handball Federation, this was not allowed. The rulebook states that women must wear bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg,” and those bikini bottoms cannot be longer than 4 inches, according to The New York Times. Meanwhile, men can wear shorts at least four inches above the knee, provided they are “not too baggy.”
This act of defiance did not come out of nowhere — the Norwegian women say they have been complaining to the IHF about the bikini-bottoms problem since at least 2006.
Each Norwegian handball rebel was fined 150 euros (about $170), which the Norwegian Handball Federation says it will pay. But this act of defiance did not come out of nowhere — the Norwegian women say they have been complaining to the IHF about the bikini-bottoms problem since at least 2006. In their mind, the fact that they have to compete in skimpy uniforms, when their male counterparts do not, is a sexist double standard.
And they’re right.
Women in sports are often put in a no-win situation, at times being told that while competing they have to wear revealing uniforms that feminize and sexualize their appearance by appealing to the male gaze, while at other times being chastised for their clothing being too revealing, a policing of the morality of women.
This contradiction makes more sense when you remember that historically, men have determined which clothing was appropriate for women to compete in. During the Victorian era, women were forced to play sports — including tennis and baseball— in long hoop-skirts. Despite the fact that it hindered movement and created a safety hazard, it was considered inappropriate for women to show their ankles. As the decades wore on, women’s sporting uniforms continued to be policed, from the women forced to play baseball in short skirts during World War II in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, to women volleyball players being required to wear bikinis, a regulation that was in place until 2012. The now-defunct Legends Football League, formerly the Lingerie Football League, was formed on the entire premise that women would play football in their underwear.
All-too-often, these dress codes take aesthetics and arbitrary social norms into account when dictating what is appropriate for female athletes to wear, but they hardly ever ask what the women would be most comfortable playing in.
For too long, women have been deemed lesser athletes than men, and the fact that they played in skirts was cited as evidence that their sports were unserious. The male powers-that-be were entirely unconcerned with the function of these athletes' uniforms or their bodily comfort while wearing them.
The one thing these aesthetic restrictions have all had in common is that they have been rooted in upholding white, Western, Christian ideas of femininity.
The one thing these aesthetic restrictions have all had in common is that they have been rooted in upholding white, Western, Christian ideas of femininity. Serena Williams came up against these ideas in 2018 when she dared to wear a catsuit on the tennis court at the French Open, an outfit the French Tennis Federation called disrespectful to the game. Muslim athletes who want to play in hijabs have been battling these regulations for years, and bans on hijabs often prevent these women from being able to participate in sport.
“It is about controlling women's bodies and not about advantage, danger or anything else,” Shireen Ahmed, a sportswriter and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” podcast, wrote on Twitter. “The system was established to silence women and take away bodily agency including what we wear: hijab, shorts, etc.”
One thing we have seen in recent years, though, is a collective desire for change. Women have been less willing to accept things the way they are, and are using the collective power they possess to push for change. Whether it’s the Norwegian handball team deciding as a group to flout a sexist dress code, the U.S. women’s national soccer team banding together to fight for equal pay, Muslim women pushing for international federations like FIBA to lift their hijab ban, or netball athletes fighting to overturn the dress requirement, there is strength in a united front.
Perhaps support for the Norwegian handball players will translate to a larger willingness to re-examine the uniforms female athletes in all sports are being forced to play in. Perhaps collective outrage will spur a demand for women to be able to decide what they want to wear onto the field. Or perhaps we are doomed to keep having this conversation every single year.