The moment Paralympian Olivia Breen finished the long jump competition at the English Championships last month, her attire should have been the last thing on her mind.
Instead, the 24-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, was left “speechless” when a female official criticised her choice of sprint briefs.
“Women should not be made to feel self-conscious about what they are wearing when competing, but should feel comfortable and at ease,” she said on Twitter.
While shocking, Breen’s story is not unique.
She is one of many female athletes in recent months to speak out against the policing of women’s bodies in the world of sport.
The trouble with dress codes
Throughout history, women have faced a battle to be recognised for their sporting prowess rather than their aesthetics.
Dress codes have been called into question for presenting double standards – for example, where women must wear tight-fitting sports tops and bikini bottoms, while men in the same sport are far less exposed in tank tops and shorts, or even full-length pants.
Dress codes can also influence the participation of young girls in sport, a study by Victoria University found.
The What Girls Want in Sport Uniforms: A National Study, released in February, found that many girls drop out of sport because they feel self-conscious and embarrassed about showing their bodies.
Charles Sturt University lecturer in human movement studies (Health and PE) Rachael Jefferson-Buchanan said that the sexualisation of women in sport has been exacerbated by compromising camera angles to appeal to the “male gaze”.
“Sport has become a business and, consequently, we see what sells, and basically female bodies sell,” she said.
A struggle for power
In recent years, gymnastics has been riddled with abuse scandals, highlighting a sports culture that fosters the objectification of women.
Ms Jefferson-Buchanan said that despite the evolution of feminism, the institution of sport is still very gendered.
“It’s not fair that we have very gendered committees governing bodies, national federations, etc, making decisions without women’s input – it’s not fair at all,” she said.
“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety for women around how they can push back, and in what way when there are all these power relations.”
Breaking down barriers
With females representing nearly 49 per cent of athletes, The Tokyo Olympics were billed as the first “gender-balanced” games.
But what women were wearing yet again dominated the conversation – but this time, it was for a different reason.
Making a deliberate statement against sexualisation, the German women’s gymnastics team made headlines with their choice to don full-coverage leotards.
Soon after, the Norwegian women’s handball team were fined 1500 euros for competing in shorts, rather than bikini bottoms.
The moves were hailed as groundbreaking, and other teams are expected to follow in their progressive footsteps.
Ms Jefferson-Buchanan said that when one group of athletes pushes back, it has a “ricochet effect,” empowering other women.
“If our bodies are to be paraded, if our bodies are to be objectified, then we need to be the ones who can actually be empowered and talk about these things, and that’s the shift that I’m seeing,” she said.
“It’s just fabulous.”