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'Flexibility and choice' needed for athletic uniforms: U of T's Catherine Sabiston

The Norwegian women's beach handball team was fined 1,500 euros for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms at the European Beach Handball Championships (photo courtesy of Norwegian Handball Federation)

Pop star Pink is the latest to side with the Norwegian women's beach handball team, offering to pay their fine for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms at the European Beach Handball Championships.

The team was fined 1,500 euros by the European Handball Federation for its choice of attire because the players' shorts were "not according to the athlete uniform regulations,” sparking an immediate backlash.

Writer Jelena Damjanovic recently spoke to Catherine Sabiston, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE), about the controversy.

Sabiston, a Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity and Mental Health, has done research on body image and recently published a paper with Professor Timothy Welsh, interim associate dean of research at KPE, that suggests women wearing loose and concealing clothing had better motor performance than those wearing tight and revealing clothing. 


What’s your take on this particular uniform regulation?  

Regulations for uniforms without any flexibility and choice demonstrate a lack of regard for the athlete’s integrity and sense of self, a lack of innovation, a lack of respect for cultures and different climates, a lack of a progressive approach on inclusivity and equity and a maintenance of the objectifying focus on women’s sport – where the focus is on how girls and women look versus how they perform.

Uniform regulations are a main component of sport that demonstrates so many inequities on identifying factors such as gender and sex, but also race and ethnicity, ableism and socioeconomic status, to name a few. We tend to focus on the sexism connotations of the uniform, which is certainly a main disparity. Men’s uniforms certainly cover more of the body, reveal less and in many sports even have more flexibilities with less consequences.  

Interestingly, the beach handball section of the International Handball Federation handbook highlights the uniform’s role as contributing to “helping athletes increase their performance as well as remain coherent with the sportive and attractive image of the sport”. For this, men wear tank tops, whereas women wear tops of “a midriff design.” While both are close-fitting, women’s uniforms also have “deep cutaway armholes on the back” – essentially removing most of the uniform top material. Furthermore, men are required to wear shorts that are not “too baggy” and can be longer, but 10 centimetres above the kneecap. Note the flexibility in the terminology used. Female athletes are required to wear bikini bottoms with close fit and “cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg.” Also, the “side width must be of a maximum of 10 centimetres.” These regulations show no flexibility. 
 
Can such rules act as deterrents for women who might otherwise be interested in taking up a sport? 
 
Absolutely, uniforms can be a deterrent for starting or trying out a sport, a reason for having poor experiences and a factor of disengagement and drop out. We just completed a study demonstrating that uniform style, fit and rigid regulations affect girls’ body image and provide an overarching feel of inequity for girls and women’s sport – from the athletes, parents, coaches, referees and sport administrators. Uniforms were discussed in the interviews a lot and there was an overall perception that uniform regulations impacted the quality of sport experiences for girls. Since we have also found that body image and negative emotions tied to the body are related to less sport engagement and greater drop out, it means that some girls are not even thinking about some sports with specific uniform regulations.  

 


  
Should sport uniforms be a matter of choice?
 
There are many ways to innovate in regulations for uniforms. From the closeness of fit, amount and type of material used, to sizing. Uniforms have to be free choice to demonstrate any respect for the athletes. Also, it is important to highlight that many youth may need multiple uniforms in one single season to feel comfortable. The natural developmental changes that take place during adolescence means a season could start out in a perceived comfortable uniform that soon becomes uncomfortable, and in some cases can lead to a lack of intent to return. Without flexibility and choice, uniform regulations are impacting the inequities we see in sport across the lifespan, and from grassroots and community opportunities through to the Olympics. 

Can the cut and make of a uniform influence an athlete’s performance? 
 
Professor Welsh and I worked together on research showing that close-fitting clothing impacts motor performance. Based on this research and many other similar studies and theories, we found that if uniforms are not comfortable, it provides athletes with another sport stressor to think about and focus on, which draws attention away from the needed skill, strategy and performance. Women should be focusing on what they need to do to perform their best – not how they feel in their uniforms. Uniforms have a purpose to help with performance, but not at the expense of the integrity and self-perceptions of the athletes.   

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