Why female athletes wear what they wear.

Of the thousands of images from the Rio Olympics, there are few that signal a shift quite like this one.

Egypt’s Doaa Elghobashy vs Germany’s Kira Walkenhorst at the beach volleyball net.  Both elite athletes. Both strong, fierce women at the top of their game. One of them covered, head to ankle. The other probably still red from a muff wax the night before.


Pictures are worth a thousand words, but this one just said it to me in a sentence:


Finally. You don’t have to wear half a bikini to play beach volleyball. 

This may have been one small vertical leap for beach volleyballers, but it’s a giant leap for the portrayal of women in sport.

A photo posted by Guilf (@guilf) on

  So Exhale. Unbutton your jeans. Let your beautiful muffin top hang a minute. Because this image of a hijabbed beach volleyballer is a fracture, a fissure, a tiny hole in what’s been a very long history of sexploitation in women’s sport.


Fun historical fact: from the mid-eighties until about four years ago, women’s beach volleyball was all about the T and A. Uniform regulations deemed those lithe ladies had to compete in crop tops, with bikini bottoms that should not exceed six centimetres in width at the hip.

At the time, the president of Volleyball Australia, Craig Carracher, said it wasn’t sexist at all, merely showing off the athletic bodies of women. In the most textbook mansplain, he blamed the controversy surrounding the skimpy uniforms on us.  We’re the sexist ones for even mentioning it. “When the public stops concentrating on women’s uniforms and starts to admire their athletic performance will be the real benchmark for when culturally we have advanced beyond sexism and gender inequality in sport,” he told SBS. Did I mention the men, playing the same game, presumably there for people to “admire their athletic performance” wore shorts and singlets?

On the fields of other women’s sports in the early 2000s, you just about couldn’t move without someone getting their kit off. Sponsorship was low. Interest was low.  Dollars were low. Promotion was next to none. So how do you sell women’s sport? How can you ensure as many eyeballs as possible? How can you grab headlines and column inches and the attention of corporates? Strip. 

The Matildas, some of who as we now know were scrubbing toilets just to pay the bills, did a nude calendar to raise money to keep the #oneteam #onedream alive.



  Basketball teammates of mine, (the ones with the best bodies), partook in artistic nude photo shoots (while I still showered with my undies on and wondered why my baby fat wouldn’t shift).  


A photo posted by Laura Hodges (@laura_hodges11) on



Our touch footballers and basketballers switched to play in tight Lycra bodysuits, all under the guise of “comfort” and “performance wear” and “Well, you’re all athletes so you should show off what you’ve got.”

And ever so subtly, the currency of the game shifted to be a bit more about how our bodies looked and a bit less about what they were doing.


Listen to how that went for me. And for every other player who didn’t look like Giselle Bunchen:     


  All the while, the men still played on, in shorts and singlets.

It wasn’t our fault. And at the time, of course, we were still being courageous, tough, aggressive kick-arse bitches with community-minded hearts and records cleaner than a konmari kitchen, but that didn’t speak to corporates. Between games we’d go to school visits in low socio-economic areas. We’d talk to younger players. We’d do coaching clinics. We’d travel to the country to play games, we were mentors, role models, women who gave back. We would scramble for any media attention, any fan attention at all. We were national league players who would finish our Sunday games, stretch down on the court so we could talk to kids, and then have a barbecue with any fan that was still hanging around. THAT’s how grateful we were to our sponsors, fans, families, anyone that came.

But outside of being a good player and having a good heart, it was still about how we looked.  

 Encouragingly, what we have seen at the Olympics are stories about athletes like Catherine Skinner, Australia’s gold medal trap shooter. Ellia Green, the Rugby seven’s powerhouse. Gymnast Simone Biles, a woman who can jump twice her own height, Majlinda Kelmendi, the Judo player who won Kosovo’s first-ever gold medal. High performance athletes, Gold medal winners, in many more shapes and sizes than you typically see in the media.

 Women who don’t fit the six-foot-one-lithe-perky-breasts-and-nice-hair-look of sponsorship deals.

So where is Australia at, now? Well, the bikini rules of Beach Volleyball have been relaxed, not that you would know from this promotional shot.     




And a quick glance at the TV tells me that the Hockeyroos, our women’s Hockey team, play in suits where you can almost see what they’ve had for breakfast.



And the men? As ever, they play in singlets and shorts.



Yes, women can be both athletic and feminine. Athletes have a right to present themselves in any way they choose. But for us watching along, just take note: focusing on what the body looks like, over what it can do, is a false economy. It might feel good at the time, but in a society where we want more women participating in sport, the answer is to reflect as many shapes and sizes for as long as we can.

The answer lies in seeing the achievements, the sacrifices, the pain and the glory. Seeing more than the T and A.

Do you care what athletes wear?

You can listen to the full episode of Mamamia Out Loud, here: