When I was on the cheerleading team in high school, we wore these really cute uniforms with a tank top with the school colors of purple and white emblazoned in a “V” on the front and a little skirt that flipped when you twirled. I loved cheerleading, and I loved my cheer uniform.
The only thing I hated was how exposed I felt whenever I had to do any moves that required me to spread my legs. On the sidelines we did lots of flips and jumps that would have our skirts flying up and revealing our bloomers underneath. I always used to panic at the idea that anyone might see “too much” or that some creep in the stands would be trying to get an eyeful of my crotch. I had an elaborate shaving and post-shave routine I completed before any game day, making sure no pubic hair was escaping my bloomers and that my razor burn was under control. I wore special wedgie-proof bloomers.
My panic and my shaving and razor burn-prevention routine were normal to me. It was something we all did without question because that was the convention and we loved our sport.
An Athlete’s Right To Cover Up
So it caught my attention recently when German gymnast Sarah Voss made headlines with her choice to compete in a full-body unitard at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Basel, Switzerland. Two of Voss’s teammates also opted for unitards. I would have loved to have a little more coverage in my cheerleading days, and I was only performing to a teeny live crowd.
In an interview with public broadcaster ZDF, Voss said, “We women all want to feel good in our skin. In the sport of gymnastics it gets harder and harder as you grow out of your child’s body. As a little girl I didn’t see the tight gym outfits as such a big deal. But when puberty began, when my period came, I began feeling increasingly uncomfortable.”
The German federation (DTB) fully backs their gymnasts, saying that female athletes should get to feel comfortable in their clothing at all times and they support their athletes standing against “sexualisation in gymnastics.” Voss also said she hopes that “gymnasts uncomfortable in the usual outfits will feel emboldened to follow our example.”
The History And Relevance Of The Gymnastics Leotard
In images from the 1908 Olympics, female gymnasts can be seen sporting suits that looked more like a stuffy dress than something in which you’d want to perform a complicated tumbling pass. With long puffy sleeves and a below-the-knee baggy skort, the competitors’ bodies were nearly completely covered.
By the 1948 Olympics, gymnastics suits were already evolving to look a little more like what we see today, with a more form-fitting body and fabric that stopped at the hip so the athletes’ legs were entirely in view. Over time, technology contributed to huge advances in the stretch and appearance of the material used to make leotards.
The convention for female gymnasts today is to wear leotards consisting of extremely tight, often shiny fabric that highlights every little bump and divot in an athlete’s body. Competition leotards are usually long-sleeved with a higher cut leg meant to give the appearance of longer leg lines. Leotards are supposed to show your personality and help a gymnast feel confident.
Butt Glue And Other Abnormal Norms
Because the laws of physics apply, leotards sometimes creep into an athlete’s butt crack, creating an uncomfortable wedgie and revealing more butt cheek than she wants. But if a gymnast picks her wedgie during her performance, the judges deduct points. So, many female athletes use a spray called TuffSkin to stick their leotard to their butt to avoid this happening.
It’s not actually required to wear these types of leotards — it’s just become the convention over time. The thinking is that the higher cut on the leg gives the look of longer leg lines, perhaps enhancing the athlete’s performance in the eyes of the judges. Shorts are not officially disallowed, but they’re also not included as “acceptable attire” in the current Women’s Code of Points. Unitards that cover from hip to ankle are officially allowed, but currently, if a female gymnast wears shorts to compete, she risks losing points.
A change.org petition is currently circulating to adjust these rules so that athletes will not be penalized for wearing shorts. The petition states, in part, “I have had multiple young females start their menstrual cycle during competition and were required to compete in a leotard that only covers exactly 2¾ inches of the most private area of their body or take a .20 deduction. With a situation they cannot control and having a male coach I, like many of my colleagues, find this rule to be discriminatory and outdated.”
Covering Up Does Not Mean Protection From Sexual Assault
We want to be clear that we don’t suggest that athletes who choose to cover up are protecting themselves from sexualization or sexual assault, or that athletes who continue to use the conventional bare-leg leotard are in any way “asking for it.” Aly Raisman made that point in 2018 when the debate about whether female gymnasts should opt for uniforms with more coverage in light of the sexual abuse scandal with Larry Nassar.
The issue at hand is a matter of personal choice, and of consent. Yes, every sport will have its standards, and yes, in an artistic sport like gymnastics it’s arguably helpful to see the lines of an athlete’s body. But there needs to be more flexibility for gymnasts who would like to opt for more coverage.
Even sports like beach volleyball updated their uniform requirements for women prior to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Female volleyball players now have the option to wear shorts instead of the previously mandatory bikini. This should be the case across all sports. We should be permitted to cover our bodies if we choose to and not be penalized for it.
As for Sarah Voss, she wasn’t thrilled with her performance on beam in Basel, but she was proud of her decision to wear a unitard — which looked amazing, by the way. In her Instagram post, she wrote, “Feeling good and still looking elegant? Why not?”
We totally agree, Sarah.