Beach volleyball: Does it make a difference if the women choose the skimpy uniforms?

My short answer: Yes.

My slightly longer answer: I might still think there are interesting, critical things to be said about a person’s choices in a society with such thick and strongly enforced gender norms, but ultimately–whatever I may think about another person’s choices–I respect what other women want, especially what they want to wear. I’m a feminist who thinks we need to critically engage with gender norms and socialization but I’m also the kind of feminist who thinks you get to choose what’s right for you.

Sidenote: While I think we all ought to critically and thoughtfully engage with society’s gender norms, I don’t think you have to do that. Even if you just thoughtlessly absorb them, we still have to respect your choices. Also, lots of women make strategic choices. For example, there are some norms of feminine gender presentation I might recognize as personally oppressive but choose to abide by anyway because the costs of not doing so are too high. 

Whatever your reasons–thoughtless endorsement of gender norms, reflective engagement and acceptance of the norms, or strategic cost/benefit analysisI think your choices have to be respected.

This comes up because I posted on Monday about the women’s beach volleyball skimpy uniforms (as compared to the men’s loose tanks and long baggy shorts.) Several of you chimed in our Facebook page about choice. The women chose the bikini style uniforms. It’s not like boxing where they were forced to wear skirts.

Here’s some snippets from the debate on our Facebook page:

  • the women who choose to wear them say they prefer them. They simply don’t want to be sexualized based on their choice of uniform. Let’s not shame them for their decision to wear a uniform that allows them to perform at their best.
  • Nah, there is no way that playing at that level with a wedgie is preferable. And if less really is more comfortable, why are the men in shorts and a loose fitting tank top? Shouldn’t they be topless in a speedo?
  • Why not take the women at their word and assume they are telling the truth? *shrug*
  • Dissecting how socialization and internalized misogyny might contribute to their choice of outfit is not shaming them at all
  • I have heard/read a few interviews where the women say they love showing the powerful bodies they’ve worked hard for and that the crops/low-hi-cut bottoms are best in the heat. That’s good enough for me!
  • I think the important thing to remember is WHY they might be choosing less?? If it’s because it’s empowering to them to have their strong body at the focus then cool. If it’s because we constantly sexualize women and that’s the only way for female athletes to get sponsors then I don’t blame them as individuals at all, but it’s more evidence that how we value women still sucks
  • I have been so bugged by this forever. And yes I was surprised to learn they have a choice. And they choose to wear the bikinis. Apparently not bothered by wedgies or sand in their crotches, they say bikinis enhance their performance because they don’t ‘get in the way’
  • As a feminist, I support the right of these powerful Olympians to wear the uniform they prefer to wear. Second-guessing choices made by other women (choices that don’t affect you in any way) is not a feminist position.
  • Of course they choose to wear less… Who gets more sponsors? A “sexy” Olympian woman or one that is properly dressed

Love the diversity of opinion and the respectful discussion. Feminists are not a monolithic group. You should go like our page if you don’t already!

Some of you sent me this image, showing the contrast between the usual women’s beach volleyball uniform and what the Egyptian players were wearing:

I shared it. Thanks friends! Again, an interesting discussion ensued. Pretty much every comment thread after this image mentioned the difference in melanoma risk. There was also more lively debate about choice. And one commentator thought that neither outfit looked like what’s comfortable for playing beach volleyball and that both “represent opposite outcomes of the male gaze dictating how women dress, though.” Pretty much everyone seemed to think the mens’ uniform, somewhere in the middle in terms of exposed skin, gets it right–baggy shorts and loose fitting tank tops.

What’s true is that the rules governing beach volleyball uniforms for women have evolved to accommodate women who for religious or cultural reasons want to show less skin. What seems to be the case though–and correct me if I’m wrong–is that it’s a team choice. What if you’re a dissenting team member if a team who chose the standard women’s beach volleyball uniform? What if your grounds for not wanting to play in the bikini aren’t religious at all? What if you’d simply rather play in a tank and baggy shorts?

At a sports question exchange site someone asks, Are the gender differences in Olympic uniforms simply a style choice? Whose choice?. Here’s the answer:

In Beach Volleyball, the default clothing is indeed strikingly different and far more revealing for women. Women may wear more modest clothing citing religious or cultural reasons, but have to request permission for these. Men are not allowed not wear more revealing (or more modest) clothing.

In Gymnastics, the laws are really complicated, because there is a multitude of disciplines. Generally, women seem to have more options.

In Swimming, men must wear more revealing clothing.

See this post to see just how revealing, Accidental Censorship Of Olympic Divers Makes Them All Look Like Porn Stars.


8 thoughts on “Beach volleyball: Does it make a difference if the women choose the skimpy uniforms?

  1. Thanks for writing about this.

    The discussion of beach volleyball uniforms has been ongoing for over a decade now (since the rule was first implemented for the 1996 Olympics), and as you noted, were modified for the 2012 Olympics to accommodate more women. I think what often gets lost in the discussion is the original rationale and motivation the FIVB had to implement the uniform regulations in the first place–essentially, to ensure female beach volleyball players came across as ‘sexy’. Unfortunately, this institutionalized systemic sexism continues (even with the modifications).

    Some may be interested in some academic analysis of the uniforms. Couldn’t attach the actual articles here, but am more than willing to send if interested.

    Weaving, C. (2012) “Buns of Gold, Silver, and Bronze: A critical analysis of the state of Olympic women’s beach volleyball” in Olympics and Philosophy. Mike Austin and Heather Reid (Eds). University Press of Kentucky, pp. 370-392. ISBN: 978-0-813-3648-6.


    Sailors, P., Teetzel, S. & Weaving, C. (2012) “No Net Gain: A critique of media representation of women’s Olympic beach volleyball. Feminist Media Studies, 12(3): 1-5.
    DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2012.698093

  2. This was a very insightful article. It’s true that women’s uniforms are more modest for swim than they are for men, though it’s the opposite for beach volleyball. This topic is so difficult to argue because it can be a challenge to identify what female beach volleyball players want for themselves. Do they truly “choose” to dress in less attire, or does social/cultural pressure play a role? If most other women are dressed in such a fashion, do they experience some kind of pressure to appear “strong,” “fit,” “sexy,” etc.?

    Another aspect of this article I thought was intriguing was the photo of female beach volleyball players wearing the hijab. As a Muslim woman myself, I find that it is crucial for the voices of minorities to be heard. I am a distance runner, and I’ve never run a single race without being dressed from head-to-toe. I’m glad you took the time to consider a wide range of perspectives. To a great extent, our choices are ruled by social, religious, and cultural norms. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is such a powerful article. I find the women in hijab inspiring but I also agree, if these women want to show their powerful bodies that they have worked so hard to build; then more power to them. It’s sad that that society will (likely) see these women for their sexuality rather than their strength and power.

  4. Bikinis are one thing but their butt cheeks were completely hanging out. I have an 11 and 13 year old daughter who both play sports and its hard to explain to them why these women are exposing so much of their booty. I’m no pride and, as a feminist, generally defend women’s right to wear whatever they choose. l still wear a bikini at age 48 (amd plan to for a long time!) and allow my girls to wear what they choose within reason. But, these women are representing their countries on national television and are role models for young athletes. I understand less clothing is cooler and less restrictive but, come on, letting your butt cheeks show is NOT part of that equation, sisters. A female athlete Shouldn’t need to go get a Brazilian wax before a sports competition!

  5. the elephant on the beach! CHOICE! the thing feminists fought so hard for, but now hate so much!!

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