TOKYO – Ah yes, the traditional Olympic hand-wringing over the bathing suits that beach volleyball players wear to play volleyball on the beach (or, at least, on sand that’s been carefully and probably artificially placed near water).
Our unwillingness to move beyond the lowest-hanging fruits of gender inequality has once again manifested as a sometimes prurient and sometimes puritanical obsession with dictating what women wear to work.
In the lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics this conversation was kicked into high gear by a pair of conflicting crackdowns on female athletes’ competition clothes. A Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined for shorts that covered too much, and a paralympic track and field competitor was chastised for briefs that didn’t cover enough. It’s almost as if the only consistent expectation placed on women is that they please everyone.
Fortunately, the practical solution — if not one that can actually influence reactions — is somewhat obvious: agency. And that’s what beach volleyball players have, nowadays anyway.
In 2012, the International Volleyball Federation modified its rules to allow for a wider range of acceptable styles. The current guidelines include one-piece, tank tops, shorts, t-shirts and bikinis. The two competitors just have to align in style. Most teams, including Alix Klineman and April Ross, the No. 2-ranked U.S. women who are expected to medal in Tokyo, opt for bikinis.
“For us, this is the most comfortable,” Klineman said after handily defeating the Spanish team on Tuesday morning. Bikinis are better about not building up sand when athletes dive for the ball. Plus, maybe you’ve heard, it’s been oppressively hot and humid in Tokyo this week.
“And we actually helped to design these bikinis.”
That’s because they need to fit just right — the women work with sponsors to ensure the straps don’t pull, the band isn’t too tight, and that the bottoms don’t ride up. Although there’s only so much that can be done there.
“We do get wedgies sometimes,” Klineman said. “It’s just what happens.”
But also, they do it because they want to have a say over the colors, the placement of certain logos. You know, the style.
Ross laughs and says that Klineman in particular cares about controlling the aesthetic of their uniforms.
“We actually were doing a check in and the technical supervisor said we have the most combinations of any team in the tournament,” Ross said. “He was a little bit flustered.”
That’s in part because the pair have different sponsors, and have been able to coordinate a range of options to accommodate both.
“That helps us make a living,” Klineman said. “You can’t necessarily get sponsored by the same company.”
The agency over their appearance doesn’t stop at the bikinis.
“Oh my gosh, I thought so hard about this,” Ross said about her intricate manicure and pedicure: blue with white stars for her toes, red and white on fingers.
“I asked my boyfriend about it, I asked my roommate about it. I have this little place in Newport Beach (Calif.) where I go before every Olympics,” she said. “Very excited about it.”
It’s really not that hard. The volleyball players, like so many women, want to feel confident and comfortable with how they look. They just don’t want to be leered at. They want to be admired for their athleticism on the sport’s biggest stage. And get their nails done ahead of time. None of these things are mutually exclusive.
Dress codes can and often do serve to uphold sexist or racist societal values. But, provided they have agency in the matter, what the women wear to compete was never actually the problem with whatever sexist thoughts their outfits inspire.
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