More Than a Uniform: Athletic Gear Raises Female Sexualization Debate


Charlotte Baird

Senior Cici Bailey hangs upside down while practicing her aerial arts. Bailey performs competitive aerial arts, and her performances often require specialized costumes. “There’s times where I love my costume and then there’s times where I despise my costume,” Bailey said. “Sometimes they’re ill fitting because the sizes aren’t made for all body types, obviously, unless you get a custom fit which can be really expensive.”

By Marin Ellington, Marquette High School

Shriya Sawant, senior, is a competitive gymnast and often finds it difficult to feel completely comfortable given the tight-fitting nature of her uniforms and the sexualization of athletic wear she has seen on the internet.

“There are definitely certain sports where the uniforms go too far and it’s clear the intent is to sexualize the athletes,” Sawant said. 

She has seen this create body image issues with many athletes, even from a young age. Sawant said this has created an environment where self-deprecating jokes and comments are commonplace among her teammates. 

“I try not to think about how my body looks in leotards or workout clothes as much, but I still find myself stressing out about it occasionally,” Sawant said.

Recently the negative effects of such differences between uniforms for men’s and women’s sports and athletes’ movements to contradict these issues have gained media attention. 

German Olympic gymnast Elisabeth Seitz has made waves by choosing to wear a full-body unitard rather than a leotard during competition and advocating for others to do so during the Olympics this past summer.

Sawant said she sees this movement as a beneficial change that will help many athletes to feel more comfortable participating in their sport.

I try not to think about how my body looks in leotards or workout clothes as much, but I still find myself stressing out about it occasionally.”

— Shriya Sawant, senior

“Women should have more of a choice with the uniforms because a lot of women don’t feel comfortable showing skin, while others are fine with it,” Sawant said. “I also like that women are permitted to wear black shorts if they want to while competing, though I don’t think many coaches know that, and some even don’t allow it.”

Though men’s and women’s athletic wear often differs even within the same sport, Sawant said these differences do not bother her as much as the general sexualization of whatever workout clothes a woman may choose to wear.

Cici Bailey, senior, performs aerial arts where a large part of the uniform design is related to functionality when working with harnesses and other forms of aerial suspension.

“Costumes should be made for functionality first because if it’s not functional you’re not gonna perform correctly,” Bailey said. 

Bailey is someone who has used her social media platform to advocate for recognition of problems she has seen regarding this idea of gender roles in athletic wear. Earlier this year, a news story of a young cheerleader who was murdered has gained national attention.

According to media outlets, a 13-year-old Floridian cheerleader was murdered and possibly raped by a classmate while in her cheer uniform. Her alleged killer now awaits trial on first-degree murder charges and will be tried as an adult. 

“The fellow classmates of the literal murderer and rapist were acting in support of him and saying she deserved it because of what she was wearing,” Bailey said. “There’s definitely a huge stigma around what women wear and that it would actually have a difference.”

Costumes should be made for functionality first because if it’s not functional you’re not gonna perform correctly.”

— Cici Bailey, senior

Bailey used to play lacrosse and remembers many differences beyond just uniforms though. Much less protective gear is worn in girls lacrosse as the rules specify for much less aggressive interactions between the teams with no checking or hitting allowed. 

Often there is little opportunity for women to play in male-dominated sports, and when they do, there is much stigma around it, Bailey said. Though this can be seen in relation to male interest in typically female-dominated sports as well.

“It should also go both ways,” Bailey said. “If the girl wants to wear the pants and the long sleeves or if the guy wants to wear the skirt and the tank top they should be able to. I don’t see a reason why not.”

Ryan Patterson, sophomore, said he felt a similar way during the two years he spent as a cheerleader in his youth. Though people were supportive for the most part, he recalled a time when he received negative messages on social media regarding a post he had made about his involvement in the sport.

“I never let that kind of behavior discourage me,” Patterson said. 

Though he felt comfortable in his uniform of longer pants and a long sleeve shirt, Patterson said both he and his fellow female cheerleaders felt the girls’ uniforms should have been more comfortable and less revealing.

Patterson finds no benefit to the differences between men’s and women’s uniforms within the sport.

“I think the revealing outfits had several misogynistic reasons behind them,” Patterson said. “Those uniforms were designed only to be attractive to people, and when girls primarily ages 12-16 are wearing them, I find the nature of the uniforms frankly disgusting.”

As someone who has dealt with body image struggles in the past, Patterson said the design of the uniforms, would he have had to wear them as well, would have provoked this issue further.

“I think a complete redesign to more modest uniforms is essential for the comfort and well-being of the female cheerleaders,” Patterson said.

This story was originally published on Marquette Messenger on August 17, 2021.