Abby Kinchy (and Assistant Professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) and Emily Birch sent us another example of the pressure put on female athletes to be not just amazing at their sports, but attractive while doing it. The New York Times ran an article about changes in the Badminton World Federation’s required dress code for players. The BWF issued guidelines that sought to “ensure attractive presentation” at tournaments. They also insisted on reinforcing gender differences; women players “must wear skirts or dresses.” The policy, initially intended to be implemented by May 1st, said it was acceptable to wear shorts or tracksuit pants under a skirt “where cultural or religious sensitivities require legs to be covered.” However, the guidelines stressed that it was not acceptable to wear a sheer skirt over the shorts or pants, and was absolutely unacceptable to wear shorts or pants alone.
The dress code was roundly criticized as a sexist marketing ploy that might hamper some players’ performance. While the Iranian players would be able to continue wearing their long pants, they would have to wear a skirt over them — which, as the NYT article points out, could be cumbersome and restrictive, putting some players in the position of having to accept potentially negative effects on their performance in return for being allowed to wear shorts or pants.
The BWF argued that this was for women’s players’ own good, since it would bring more attention to the sport, pointing out that they recently increased the prize money for women’s tournaments to be equal to men’s and added women’s competitions to be sure men and women have the same options for participation. The argument seemed to be that they are trying to make women’s badminton more popular, and thus the least the women can do is play their part — which means not just being excellent players, but looking more attractive to viewers.
However, as some players and other critics pointed out, the concern with using dress code to enhance the popularity of the sport seemed to fall disproportionately on women, and seemed to focus primarily on making women conform to ideals of femininity:
Interest is declining, Rangsikitpho said, adding that some women compete in oversize shorts and long pants and appear “baggy, almost like men.”
The dress code for men, on the other hand, simply requires “proper attire.”
After all the criticism, the BWF delayed implementation of the rules for a month to provide time for more discussion. Finally, in late May, they put off implementation indefinitely.
Though the dress code is on hold for the moment, it’s a great example of the way that concerns about appearance may trump functionality when it comes to women’s sports. In addition, it shows how a particular version of femininity — one that involves showing significant amounts of skin and that accepts skirts and dresses as default women’s clothing — is elevated as the ideal presentation. The fact that many badminton players have cultural or religious reasons to want (or have) to wear pants to play doesn’t require rethinking standards of femininity, but only a work-around that still upholds the ideal by requiring a skirt over pants.Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.