Beyond the gender boundary

As the (northern) summer of 2018 has drawn to a close, there has been extensive media discussion of women’s bodies – not that that is unusual: all manner of media platforms are sites for commentary on and policing of women. The last few weeks have been particularly notable, however, in part because of the sheer pettiness of the policing, at least on tennis courts, and in part because of the fight back we have seen against body control and disciplining.

It is timely to remind ourselves that the instances of repressive body control and discipline we’ve seen of late have not been one-off or the product of the views of retrograde individuals but systemic. It shouldn’t need to be said, except that we’re surrounded by discourses that celebrate the individual as a change-maker and achiever, as an oppressor and villain, downplaying collective activities and systemic relations. It is easier if we can reduce the good and the bad to the singular, and if movements can be personified in a leader or representative, be they Pankhurst or Putin, Trump or Túpac Amaru, but it silences those who struggle. Too often, those of us in and around sport weaken those struggles by failing to look beyond the boundary, and missing the places where issues in our world connect to other fields and practices. This is pervasive in sport’s banal, mundane and extensive control of women.

Much of the policing of women’s bodies is about clothing, which in many areas of sport turns on definitions of appropriate sportswear, eroticism and the scopophilic. In some case, we find very narrow and highly specific rules: many sports have prescriptive uniform requirement rules, and that’s not even taking into account contact sports. In other cases, the rules are much more open to interpretation, which leaves athletes at the mercy of judges and officials (and admittedly here there is a case to be made for retrograde individuals).

The policing has been most obvious in tennis. There is the case of Alizé Cornet, reprimanded by an umpire at the US Open for adjusting her shirt courtside (she’d put it on back to front) and in doing so exposing her bra. Now, this was a sports bra – not unknown as a sole item of upper body clothing for women athletes on hot days, an item of clothing that became an icon of women’s athleticism when Brandi Chastain whipped off her shirt in a goal celebration during the 1999 Women’s Football World Cup – and entirely appropriate wear for a serious athlete. There was a public outcry – at the penalty, not the sartorial correction – on the basis of equality, principally. The line of reasoning went, why penalise Cornet when on hot days the chaps get their shirts off courtside between sets to cool down? The US Open organisers apologised to her, and that was that. Except that we’ve not heard that much about the apology, just the chastisement. That’s a potent silence that polices.

More high profile has been the edict by French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli that Serena Williams’ ‘catsuit’ would not be allowed again. Williams is currently the darling of the tennis circuit, quite properly – she’s a great player, she has wonderful on-court and media presence, she’s getting kudos for an impressive return to the game after the birth of her daughter at the beginning of the year. What’s more, her clothing choices have long been a subject of commentary and she’s got a sense of style about her presence and appearance. On top of that, the French Open ‘catsuit’ was also reportedly designed so that the leggings helped lessen the risk of blood clots, which have been a concern since giving birth. Giudicelli’s attempt explicitly to control women’s on-court appearance annoyed many. Williams has been clear in her statements that Grand Slam tournaments get to make their own rules; that still didn’t stop her turning out a few days later in what looked remarkably like a tutu, with all the symbolism that has – of delicacy, of athleticism, of power, of grace. It’s hard not to read that as a rebuttal of Giudicelli’s policing; it has certainly endeared her to many.

Williams was not the only athlete answering back to Power by her actions in the last week of August. At the same time as she was appearing in the US Open the Asian Games took place in Jakarta. These are not events that ever get much coverage around the North Atlantic, partly because sport media coverage is notoriously nationalist in its frames, and partly because of deep-seated orientalist structures in global news media. The big story in the Asian Games for me was not a winning time but the silver medal won by Dutee Chand in the 100m.  Chand’s medal is as much, if not more, of a statement of defiance as Williams’ tutu because of its more direct global systemic significance. Outside India, many of us are only aware of Chand because of her successful 2015 challenge to the IAAF’s hyperandrogeny regulation attributing some athletic success by women to an ‘excess of testosterone’ (it was a little more complex than that, but not much). The Court of Arbitration in Sport struck down the regulation and gave the IAAF 2 years to produce evidence that would allow a high testosterone measure as an indicator of hyperandrogeny and a source of competitive inequality in track events. The IAAF came back with one, it seems seriously flawed, study resulting in a new regulation affecting middle distance runners only: Caster Semenya being the highest profile athlete affected. It is bad science and governance to base any regulation on one scientific study, no matter how good that single study is. The IAAF has made sure that the hyperandrogenism question remains an on-going struggle – but for me, Chand’s medal ‘gives the finger’ to the IAAF: the organisation had used and is still using bad science to try to define ‘woman’ for athletic events. Chand in response seems to say: ‘you tried to tell me I wasn’t a woman, I beat you in court and look here I am, still competing’. It was also a moment of personal success; it is a victorious moment to relish.

These are exciting moments of rejection of patriarchal efforts to control bodies, to define bodies, to police women: Williams is important because her individual act reminds us of the absurdity and contingency of rulemaking; Chand, though, is important because her court case supported by activists, scholars and lawyers – feminists struggling for social justice through the law, through science, through community activism – changed the system, at least temporarily. Chand might be the personification of a wider movement; although that doesn’t make her success any less sweet as we are inclined to see only the individual.

One of the problems in making sense of these cases is that in sport studies we’re not very good at making the links to other aspects of body policing and patriarchal power. There is a powerful counterintuitive issue current in the fashion industry, specifically ‘modest fashion’. It is precisely the oxymoronic suggestion of ‘modest fashion’ that makes it so compelling and important. It is a trend that has grown out of Islamic fashion: there has been a small group of high-end designers working in that field for several years, but ‘modest fashion’ has a much greater reach. It is a challenge on two fronts: one is to patriarchal power and a masculinist gaze that determines how women’s bodies appear and are performed in public; these bodies must be seen, must be clothed and must move in particular ways. The second is to an orientalist outlook that denies the fashionability of modest (halal) clothing, wrapped up in the language of the dull uniformity and oppression of the burka, the niqab, the jilbab, the hijab. Modest fashion, which now extends to a market well beyond the fashionable Muslimah to include many non-Muslim women uncomfortable about the defining male gaze, resists patriarchal power in favour of women’s agency; its presence is growing with a notable impact in the industry’s front people if the current profile of Shahira Yusuf or Halima Aden is anything to go by. Residents of the San Francisco Bay Area are lucky to have a major exhibition due to open late this year. Yet despite the centrality of bodies in movement to industries such as contemporary fashion, despite the similarities in the politics of women’s bodies in sport and fashion and despite the profile developments such as modest fashion are getting, we’re analysts of two industries (sport & fashion) that largely ignore each other.

By not paying attention to the kinds of insight the fashion industry can give us, no matter how much we in sports studies talk about these issues of women’s body policing and therefore gender policing only in sport, we’re doing little more than critique. If, instead, we built these links between challenges to control across boundaries we are better able to explore the systemic means of policing. A likely effect is a greater impact through more support for struggles bringing about change, helping more people to see their world differently and bringing about change more effectively – but to do that we’ve got to break institutional barriers (our university employers are becoming increasingly silo-like, and we’re enforcing disciplinary boundaries in part through the plethora of journals and rigidity of the walls we erect to mark the remit of our work) and stop reading only the sports pages. Until then, we’re shouting into the void.

About author
Malcolm MacLean is Reader in the Culture & History of Sport in the School of Sport and Exercise, and is Research Degrees Lead for the Schools of Health & Social Care, Natural & Social Sciences and Sport & Exercise at the University of Gloucestershire in England. He is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and currently Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport.
1 comment on this postSubmit yours
  1. avatar

    Good to read about policing of women`s sporting bodies on clothing. I like the critic of downplaying collective activities and systemic relations. And yesss- look outside sports news to understand the different collective norms of the time. We can still read about female well-known politicians with the ` wrong dresses`and never about their male colleges, and all the discussion about the correct women`s clothes in schools, on the streeet etc. We all know about this, but too seldom include it in our sports analysis.

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