I wrote this short essay as a possible vlog script yesterday in response to this article in the New York Times: Badminton’s New Dress Code is Being Criticized as Sexist. I didn’t get a chance to film the video, but I think this argument translates well to a blog post. As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments.
I spent an hour this morning reading the newspaper, as I usually do. I admit that I sometimes skim the sports section, but today. Oh ho. Today I was most engrossed, because apparently, the Badminton World Federation has a lot to say about skirts.
Realizing that interest in women’s badminton has flagged in recent years, the Federation decided it was time to revive the ratings in time for the 2012 Olympics. But instead of investing in an ad campaign, or promoting their stars on sports networks, or thinking about the public perception of their sport, they decided to cultivate a more “attractive presentation” by forcing all female athletes to wear skirts or dresses.
Let’s just think about that for a second. To boost ratings, this board of sports professionals — 92% of whom are male — voted to make their female athletes “feminize” and sexualize their bodies. Instead of viewing all athletes in an equal light, the board singled out the women and are exploiting their bodies for publicity and advertising. If this sounds like some kind of Mad Men subplot, it’s probably because the Federation consulted a marketing firm — yes, an organization that specializes in selling things — when making their decision.
The outrage against this rule is, as you may expect, very strong. Many female players wear shorts and athletic pants because they can move better in them, and object to how a skirt would interfere with their game. Some women object for religious or cultural reasons, and would have to wear long pants underneath a skirt or dress to comply with the rule — and you can imagine how cumbersome that would be, how much it would affect their playing.
It almost goes without saying that there are no rules governing what male athletes wear.
I’m not even most outraged at the obvious thoughtlessness, the disregard for women’s athletic prowess. I’m pissed that it apparently didn’t cross anyone’s mind that this is sexist. Sexism, see, is not just discriminating against a person based on her sex. It’s also “behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.” Stuff that enforces sex-based stereotypes. And touting women’s bodies as sexualized selling points — that, folks, is sexism at its finest.
What really gets me is not that this group wants to better publicize their female athletes, which is fine, or even that they want to further feminize them. It’s the assumption that anyone holds the right to tell a woman how she should present herself. In athletics, clothing is generally functional, but many female tennis players, for example, like to wear clothes that inform their personality or persona. To assume that all biological females wish to identify as feminine and to dress that way belies a basic understanding of gender identity.
Moreover, assuming that anyone, especially a board comprised of 23 men and two women, has the right to tell a woman how to dress is simply dangerous. That is the kind of thinking which leads to statements like “She was asking for it” in reference to victims of rape. It assumes that how a woman dresses or styles her hair or makeup is some kind of code for men to interpret and act upon, instead of just personal style.
The way a woman dresses is not consent. It’s not an invitation for staring, groping, or verbal harassment. It’s not probable cause for assault. And it’s not a marketing campaign.
Badminton, invest in some cool commercials on ESPN and leave your athletes’ bodies out of it.