Over the weekend at the European Beach Handball Championships in Varna, Bulgaria, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team demonstrated: they wore shorts in the bronze medal match.
According to the rules put in place by the International Handball Federation, this was not allowed. The regulation states that women must wear bikini bottoms “with a fitted cut and angled upwards towards the top of the leg,” and these bikini bottoms cannot exceed 4 inches, according to the New York Times. During this time, men can wear shorts at least four inches above the knee, as long as they are “not too baggy.”
This act of defiance did not come out of nowhere – Norwegian women say they have been complaining to the IHF about the bikini bottom issue since at least 2006.
Each Norwegian handball rebel has been fined 150 euros (around $ 170), which the Norwegian Handball Federation says it will pay. But this act of defiance didn’t come out of nowhere – Norwegian women say they’ve been complaining to the IHF about the bikini bottom issue since at least 2006. In their minds, the fact that they have to compete in skinny uniforms, when their male counterparts don’t, is a sexist double standard.
And they are right.
Women in sports are often put in a no-win situation, sometimes being told that during competition they have to wear revealing uniforms that feminize and sexualize their appearance by appealing to the male gaze, while at other times , they are reprimanded for their clothing too revealing, a police force of the morals of the women.
This contradiction makes more sense when you remember that historically, men determined what clothing was appropriate for women. During the Victorian era, women were forced to play sports – including tennis and baseball – in long skirts. Despite the fact that this hampered movement and created a safety hazard, it was considered inappropriate for women to show their ankles. Over the decades, women’s athletic uniforms have continued to be monitored, from women forced to play baseball in short skirts during World War II in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, to female volleyball players forced to wear bikinis, a policy that was in place until 2012. The now defunct Legends Football League, formerly the Lingerie Football League, was formed on the premise that women would play football in their underwear.
Too often, these dress codes take into account aesthetics and arbitrary social norms when dictating what is appropriate for female athletes, but they hardly ever ask what women would be most comfortable playing in.
For too long, women were seen as less athletic than men, and the fact that they played in a skirt was cited as proof that their sports were not serious. The male powers that be were totally indifferent to the function of these athletes’ uniforms or their bodily comfort when wearing them.
The one thing these aesthetic restrictions all have in common is that they are rooted in upholding white, Western, and Christian ideas of womanhood.
The one thing these aesthetic restrictions all have in common is that they are rooted in upholding white, Western, and Christian ideas of womanhood. Serena Williams came up against these ideas in 2018 when she dared to wear a catsuit on the tennis court at Roland Garros, an outfit that the French Tennis Federation called disrespectful of the game. want to play with the hijab have been fighting these regulations for years, and hijab bans often prevent these women from playing sports.
“It’s about controlling women’s bodies and not about benefit, danger or anything,” Shireen Ahmed, sports reporter and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” podcast , wrote on Twitter. “The system was put in place to silence women and take away their freedom of bodily action, including what we wear: hijab, shorts, etc.”
One thing we have seen in recent years, however, is a collective desire for change. Women have been less willing to accept things as they are and use the collective power they have to push for change. Whether it’s the Norwegian handball team deciding as a group to flout a sexist dress code, the United States women’s national football team joining together to fight for equal pay, Muslim women doing pressure for international federations like FIBA to lift their ban on the hijab, or for netball athletes to reverse the dress requirement, there is strength in a united front.
Perhaps the support for Norwegian handball players will translate into a greater willingness to re-examine the uniforms that female athletes of all sports are forced to wear. Perhaps collective outrage will spur a demand for women to decide what they want to wear on the pitch. Or maybe we are doomed to continue having this conversation every year.