The International Volleyball Federation has decided that for the London Olympics female beach volleyball players will no longer be required to wear bikinis. (See article here: http://news.ca.msn.com/top-stories/women-can-cover-up-at-olympic-beach-volleyball-3)
I think that’s a good thing.
From now on female players will be allowed to wear shorts and shirts. (Which is exactly what the women who play volleyball indoors already wear. And it is already exactly what the men wear who play volleyball either indoors or out.) This move was made out of respect for those countries that have cultural objections to requiring women to be nearly naked in order to participate in international athletic competition.
Needless to say, North America is not home to one of those cultures. Many of us want to see our female beach volleyball players jiggle and bounce as they dig and spike.
(But there are some limits to the degree that we want nothing left to the imagination. We ask the men to wear shorts rather than skimpy bathing suits – because the only balls most of us seem to want to see in action are those that fly over the net.)
For women, the new shirt and shorts combination is a good option. Until now, the only other choice for women had been a one-piece bathing suit, which reportedly tended to collect sand through the scoop neck – sand that then settled uncomfortably in the crotch area.
Controlling what women wear. Unfortunately my happiness at the decision that female athletes will henceforth be allowed to dress like… well… athletes…. is somewhat tempered by the strong suspicion that the women on teams from nations that emphasize female modesty will still not themselves be allowed to choose just what they put on their own bodies. No doubt some man will be making that choice for them.
The rule change came about because there were teams from countries that require female modesty that were trying to qualify for the Olympics. The choice for the international community then became either to keep those teams out due to cultural reasons or to nudge the rules and let the women play. And this is a matter of interesting debate. In promoting competition, just how far should the international community shift from western, liberal attitudes about gender in order to make these events more inclusive for all women globally? For instance, can acceptable sporting attire include things like the hijab – a.k.a. the veil?
There are strong arguments to be made on both sides of this issue. Which harms women more? Allowing for what many perceive to be regressive cultural practices so that the women from those countries can play? Or do we force all female athletes to wear “modern” clothing and thus prevent a large portion of the world’s women from being able to participate in international sporting competitions at all?
Veil vs. bikini: And the winner is? Some argue that the custom of Islamic women wearing the veil is itself actually a form of liberation (for example, see: http://www.al-islam.org/about/contributions/liberationbytheveil.html) Personally I do not find those arguments convincing. But at the same time, I also do not find bikinis to always be a great sign of liberation, either.
And before we get all superior about how modern (and hence better) we in the European-based world are, let us examine just how our “developed” western attitudes play out. Obviously modes of female attire in many European and North American cultures tend toward the more revealing. But is the resulting social pressure that many girls and women then feel to have to display their bodies and/or undergarments truly a sign of a liberated society? I am not so sure.
Just go on “google images” and type in the words “female tennis players” and you will see just how seriously we truly take our female athletes. It’s all just shots of tits and ass. And for further exploration of this issue, let us also consider the reality that in 2009 the folks at Wimbledon finally admitted that when it comes to getting a match at Centre Court, for female tennis players looks absolutely trump talent. You don’t have to be good, you just have to be “hot.” (http://articles.nydailynews.com/2009-06-29/sports/17926000_1_centre-court-wimbledon-top-seeds-roger-federer)
Comfortable beach wear? Several years ago I was at the beach near Los Angeles enjoying a lovely afternoon in the sun. I happened to look over to my right and see a woman dressed entirely in black. She wore both a hijab and niqab… what we in the west might call a full veil and a covered face. She was watching her young children play in the surf.
(Her husband was nearby wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt… but that’s a topic for another blog).
And then I looked to my left and saw a razor-thin-but-still-buxom model in a tiny bikini doing a photo shoot for some catalog. She was striking sexy pose after sexy pose as the photographer and his assistants worked to get the lighting and makeup just right. The woman jutted her sharp hipbones and pendulous breasts in various directions, nearly threatening to shred the tiny bikini she wore. And she herself was surrounded by a group of two dozen men – mere passers-by who had no connection to the shoot. No, they had just stopped to stare. To gawk. And maybe even to drool a little bit as their eyes eagerly feasted upon her body as she repeatedly shifted her hips from left to right.
And I too kept turning my head back and forth… first to the right to see the woman blanketed in black cloth from head to toe, and then back to the left where the other woman wore mere scraps of fabric that barely covered her breasts, her buttocks, and her genitals. And I thought to myself… Which woman is freer? Which woman is more comfortable? Which message is more liberating: that you must not show your body, or that you must?
Dreaming. As I think back on that day, I so yearn for a day where all women everywhere feel free to dress exactly as they would like to. Where they can dress sexy if they want. Where they can dress modestly if they want. Where they can always dress in ways that they feel good about. In ways that they themselves choose.
At the beach.
And on the volleyball court.