We need to talk about underpants… - Women In Sport

We need to talk about underpants…

August 2021

Important to Women in Sport is sharing the voices of women and girls. Our ‘Mum on the Sidelines’ offers a real, authentic and often funny observation of what is stopping girls from taking part in sport by exploring the everyday inequalities that occur on the sidelines and ask you to share yours too. 

My social media pinged with stories of the Norwegian Beach Handball team taking a stand about their skimpy bikini bottoms and being threatened with fines or disqualification for wearing shorts. Flip to the Olympic para-athlete Olivia Breen told by an official that her shorts were too revealing and she needed to rethink her choice of attire.

Not long ago, Sarah Voss wore a full-length body suit at the European Championships, and just last month the full German Olympics Gymnastics team did the same, it sent the media into a frisson of excitement.  Voss wanted to take a stand against the sexualisation of girls and women perpetuated by the dress code. She has a right to feel comfortable in her own skin; on the global ‘stage’; and for people to judge her merits in gymnastics, not her outfit.

In 2018, Serena Williams wore a black ‘catsuit’ at the French Open to help with circulation and prevent blood clots post pregnancy. The French Tennis Federation took exception. In his view she had ‘gone too far’. Assuming she plays tennis according to the rules, does it matter what she wears?

As a mum of girls, I throw my hands up in bewilderment and just want to protect my daughters from this big wide, confusing world. A world I feel is harder to navigate for my daughters than it is/will be for my son.

When I was a parent of a 2-year-old (3 times over) I’d have said I had next to no control over what my children wore. Parents who have lived through the ‘terrible-twos’ can probably relate. My then 2 year old would decide on clothes for the day (despite any gentle steering from me and even if it meant I lived with a 2 year old, highly flammable, Elsa for 3 weeks solid). Somewhere though, this child-centred approach is lost, and replaced with a series of rules and expectations around what kids can and can’t wear. This extends beyond the home and into school and sport environments.

Clothes for boys feel an easier solve. Form and functionality blur into each other. Most of my son’s clothes are suitable for any eventuality. Trainers and shorts/t-shirt. Done. School uniform much the same, aside from the impractical tie which I and he can live with.

For my girls it makes my brain (and wallet) hurt. A minefield of shoe types to suit different activities and weather, clothes to suit different sports and events and hair styles to suit any permutation of the above.

Being a girl and getting yourself dressed is confusing. There seem to be a lot more rules, more do’s and don’ts and lots of scrutiny.

Scrutiny, which feels like it’s often very appearance based, rather than performance based. This brings me to underpants.

Various conversations with friends with girls who are involved with gymnastics – some on elite pathways and others with a recreational focus – have highlighted the underpants conundrum.

Underpants in gymnastics have historically been taboo. Girls generally seem to be told not to wear underpants under leotards, especially during any competitions. Looks unsightly and could lead to a point deduction. I’m told there actually isn’t anything in the current rules that supports this ‘claim’ – it seems to be more a cultural vibe issue – which in many ways makes it worse.

What are we asking our girls to wear when they play sport? Are we safeguarding their experience? Or are we letting old standards of aesthetics muddy the future of the sporting experience for girls and then as women?

I have friends who are still scarred by childhood memories of having to bend over while the PE teacher checked they were wearing the appropriate knickers under their netball skirt; or those who had boys leer at them when they did spins on the school monkey bars or cartwheels in the playground and their underpants were inadvertently on show. Sadly, as my girls will verify, the latter still happens.

Old standards can take years to filter out of the system. A few weeks ago, a friend’s daughter was told by her teacher that she couldn’t wear her skort to school on a hot day without a tracksuit over the top, as bare legs might distract the boys.

Can these cultural norms which are borne out of decades of power structures and inexplicable cultural bias be disrupted to pave the way for a brave, innovative, more inclusive world order which includes underwear.

Give women and girls a chance to make their goal the demonstration of the skills they have learned and mastered rather than stressing over hair, makeup and whether they will get a wedgie, VPL, docked points for a glimpse of their knickers or bra or heaven forbid, distract the boys.

And thank you Pink for helping to path the way to this rebellion that is beginning – paying the fine for the handball women’s team – and showing how to transform pink stereotypes.