German Gymnasts Cover Their Legs In Stand Against Sexualization Female gymnasts from Germany wore full-length unitards instead of leotards in a recent competition. Psychology professor Elizabeth Daniels says it's a statement about comfort over outward appearance.

German Gymnasts Cover Their Legs In Stand Against Sexualization

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The razzle dazzle of leotards is a mainstay in women's gymnastics competitions. They're studded with sequins, and they tend to be very revealing, right? Very different than what the men wear. But at the European Gymnastics Championships held in Switzerland last week, three female German gymnasts wore unitards. That's like a leotard but with legs. And it wasn't just a fashion statement. It was a protest of what they call the sexualization of female athletes. And although unitards are permitted for religious reasons, this break from tradition at such a major sporting event caused a stir. And it also has some wondering, like me, if this signals a change for women in sports. Elizabeth Daniels is a psychology professor at the University of Colorado who has written on the sexualization of female athletes. And she joins us now. Hello.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was your reaction to the German gymnasts wearing the unitards?

DANIELS: I thought it was great. It's, you know, one of the first examples we have of athletes making a statement that they would prefer to perform their sport in clothing that they are comfortable in rather than clothing that might be geared towards an audience.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, this has got a lot of attention all of a sudden. Why do you think this happened now?

DANIELS: You know, given the #MeToo movement, there's been a lot more cultural conversations within the U.S. but also internationally around the sexual objectification of women. And that's sort of permeating all domains of life, including sport.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some people have pushed back and say that women's athletic uniforms are tight and revealing because it allows for better performance. Is there any truth to that, in your view?

DANIELS: Well, you know, that explanation doesn't, in my mind, hold much water. For instance, beach volleyball - women are playing in bikinis whereas men are playing in shorts and a tank top. So if there was a performance reason to be wearing very tight, close-fitting clothing, you would expect men to be doing so as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why has this developed this way? Why aren't people wearing similar uniforms?

DANIELS: Well, there's always been this perception that sport is a male-typed domain and that women need to pay attention to demonstrating femininity because they're involved in a male activity. And so we see, all the way back to the 1920s, actually, examples of women's sport teams being sexualized in an attempt to sort of nod towards femininity. So it's not surprising that that has persisted over time. And we're just sort of at the point where there's a bit of a cultural reckoning where that's being questioned by women in sports specifically.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Germany's Sarah Voss, who wore that unitard in an Instagram post, said that, you know, as part of the German national team, we are a role model for many younger female athletes. And we would like to show them how they can present themselves aesthetically in a different form of clothing without feeling uncomfortable. And so I guess the question is, how does having to wear different clothing sort of affect female athletes psychologically?

DANIELS: Absolutely. So we actually have some research on this in psychology. We've done studies where we've put women in a bathing suit or a sweater. And when you put women in this bathing suit that makes the body salient, it actually does impact their attentional resources. So when you think about this within sport, the extent to which athletes - female athletes are worried about whether, you know, their bodies are looking OK in these very tight uniforms - it's a distraction to their performance.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's not only, of course, about the aesthetics. But the question here is also about sexualization. There has been, as we know in gymnastics in particular but in other sports involving young girls, issues of sexual abuse. Are these things linked? I mean, when we try to sexualize especially young athletes, I mean, is there a cost to that?

DANIELS: Absolutely. So, you know, a real challenge within the sport context is the power differential between athletes and coaches or trainers - you know, anyone who has authority over athletes such that athletes often feel that they just have to do what they're told. And so when you pair that with instances of sexual abuse, athletes may not feel like they can question or speak out about something that's uncomfortable or inappropriate, and then that behavior can persist unquestioned. So now where we're seeing athletes speaking out about uniforms, you know, it really could be symbolic of the need for athletes to have more voice in general.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elizabeth Daniels is a psychology professor at the University of Colorado. Thank you very much.

DANIELS: You're welcome. Thank you.

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