Female Handball Athletes Are No Longer Required To Compete in Bikinis
The Sexism in Sports Crisis of 2021 made some headway recently. In response to criticism against sexist regulations, the International Handball Federation published a new set of rules amending the uniform requirements for female beach handball athletes — changing it from bikini bottoms to shorts. In other words, it is no longer mandatory for female handball athletes to wear bikinis while competing.
In July, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team protested against the requirement by wearing shorts to a game. The European Handball Federation imposed a EUR 1,500 fine on the team for their “improper clothing.” According to the official uniform rules at the time, women players were required to wear bikini bottoms with a maximum side width of 10 centimeters; they also required “close fit and [a] cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” — lest they be fined or disqualified. The women’s team’s protest gathered support in the form of widespread criticism against the federation.
The rules now state that female athletes “must wear short tight pants with a close fit.” “I hope this is the beginning of the end of sexism and objectification of women and girls in sport,” Australian activist Talitha Stone told The Guardian. Stone organized a petition against the rules and collected more than 61,000 signatures. “And that in future all women and girls will be free to participate in sport without fear of wardrobe malfunctions and sexual harassment.”
Last month, sports ministers from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland wrote a joint letter to the IHF objecting to the outdated dress regulations. They fail “not only to accommodate current female athletes but also to support and encourage all athletes regardless of their gender or background to remain in the sport.”
All’s well that ends well? Not quite. Even now, there are evident differences: women are required to wear “tight” and “body fit” uniforms, while there are no similar requirements for men. Male athletes can still freely wear regular shorts as long as 10cm above the knee “if not too baggy.”
“It’s our view that it would have been even better if the rules consisted of one set of uniform regulations independent of gender,” the Norwegian Handball Federation said in a statement.
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The uprising against the bikini bottom uniform was not recent. Female players had objected for “several years,” for it was a requirement that both diverted players’ attention and also deterred some from approaching the sports, according to the Norway team coach. “With those bikinis, we were all the time checking if it’s in the right place. We were focusing on other things than the sport — and that’s not something we want,” Julie Aspelund Berg, a defender with Norway’s beach handball team, told CNN.
Women are required to wear more revealing outfits to retain people’s interest, a trend morphing into a fact. Think the exploits of the Badminton World Federation, who in 2011 decreed that women playing at an elite level must wear skirts or dresses to revive interest in women’s badminton. Or on the eve of the 2012 Olympics, the Amateur International Boxing Association tried to put female boxers in skirts so “spectators could tell them apart from the men.” Even a decade later, earlier this year, officials told Olivia Breen, a double Paralympic world champion, that her briefs were “too short and inappropriate.”
The gendered clothing regulations are not semantics — they fuel the larger tide of sexism within sports. The effect is such: women are hyper-sexualized, judged based on their appearance rather than performance, their skills are sidelined, and their caliber is undermined. A 2016 study published by Cambridge University Press found that expressions such as “older,” “pregnant” and “married” were commonly used for female competitors; media used “fastest,” “strong” and “real” to describe male counterparts.
The ripple effect is real. So is the need to strip uniform regulations that female athletes and are a disservice to them.