Monday, November 30, 2009


I have just begun my Phd studying how the growth of the internet has provided more coverage of women's sport (such as us gymnastics bloggers!)

I was, because I have to, reading a bit of a feminist rave about women's sports costumes by Jennifer Hargreaves in Sporting females.
"Sportswear makes statements about femaleness and enhances sexuality; it both reveals the body and conceals the body, promoting an awareness of the relationship between being dressed and being undressed. For example, elasticated body stockings and lycra leggings provide a dynamic image with an explicit focus on body definition and no clear distinction between body and material.  Clinging clothes highlight sexuality and eroticism as do particular designs- leotards cut high above the thigh, and skin coloured inserts between the breasts, for example"

I understand that sports can be quite sexist, and that often female athletes are  treated like sex objects in the media.  A perfect example is the equal amount of attention paid in internet sites to Alicia Sacramone's figure as it was to her performance during and after Beijing.

Gymnastics has oft been dismissed by academics as an outdated, un-feminist and too  'gender appropriate' sport.  Discussions of leotard (and other similar practice wear) certainly feeds that.

But there is one thing Hargreaves is overlooking here.  A leotard is not just a piece of clothing worn while prancing around the floor mat being coquettish, it is also a piece of technology.

She complains that there is no clear distinction between body and material.  True.  This isn't simply to sexualize the body.  Gymnastics is, more than most sports, one where it the body is judged not just on what it is doing or how fast or how far it is doing it, but how it is doing it.  And, of course, that it is doing it in perfectly prescriptive ways.  The body must be visible to those who judge it.  The form-fitting leotard caters for that.

(this will never work!!)
(Pic by Sing Lo )

As for the high-cut leotard, it has always been my understanding that leotards began to be cut higher not to show off more of the body, but to give more length to the leg, which gives an air of greater extension and amplitude. I personally liked the low cut ones because the gymnasts backsides stayed inside their leotards for whole competitions at a time, but I understand it is about something else.

(low-cut leg and lower-cut decolletage- old school style!)
(pic by Tom Theobald)

The stocking inserts in between the breast? Well, she may just be right about that!  Besides, it is a god awful trend that has hopefully passed us by, and is now safely buried at the bottom of the Ukrainian national team's dress-up box for play days!

(pic from gymbox )

What I do think is strange though, is that while the leg holes on leotards have become more and more high cut, that often, the neckline has gone up.  Why is that? Can anyone tell me?
I find it particularly strange also, because it seems to restrict the gymnasts in that I have, on occasion seen them undo the neck at the back to perform bars.  That seems strange.

(An Everest high neck- pic from gymbox )



  1. Great article. Congrats.

  2. Perhaps it is the old rule of thumb about showing either leg or cleavage but never both at once. I'm sure there is a pithy saying that recaps that point, but it is not coming to mind just at present. In this case, gymnasts were never showing cleavage and always showed a lot of leg even with the lower cut leotards. So this is perhaps a reaction to cover more of the upper body as the lower body is increasingly revealed.

    Just a thought.

  3. LOL - and you haven't even mentioned Rhythmic leos!!
    But I agree, why have the necklines on leo gone up? My eldest hates those clips - either they're digging in at the wrong time or have come undone.

  4. The argument that women cannot wear clothing that makes it clear that they are, in fact, women without being demeaned bothers me. I haven't read the piece you're talking about, but most writers ignore all the ways that competitive leotards also minimize the female figure. For every gymnast with a faux low cut neckline filled in by stocking fabric there are many more with their breasts strapped down until they disappear completely.

    As you've pointed out there are also practical aspects to the competitive leotard--it shows if knees are straight, if hips are aligned. And clothing is type to keep it from interfering with movement as much as it is for appearance.

  5. I wonder if the higher necklines are an attempt to make the body look longer and give the gymnasts longer lines?

  6. I think that all these arguments about how we need tight little leos in order to see the gymnasts' lines and keep them from getting hung up on bars would hold more water if the men didn't wear flappy pants. Are their lines less important? Remember that they are also doing (so-called) Artistic Gymnastics.

    I think that leos are the standard gym wear because they look good. That's not a bad reason in itself, but let's not dress it up in all sorts of utilitarian arguments. Is it sexist? Maybe. But the sexism goes both ways - if it's sexist to make women compete in form-fitting gear, it's equally sexist to say that the men don't have to because "no one wants to see that." In either case we're dealing with mores surrounding gender.