The History And Controversy Of Bikinis In Women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball

The History And Controversy Of Bikinis In Women’s Olympic Beach Volleyball

My research into the use of bikinis as the traditional uniform for Women's Beach Volleyball, and the controversy around it.
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Recently, I was sitting on the couch after a long day of work and my parents had the Olympics on TV. As we tuned into a match of USA Women’s Beach Volleyball, both my mom and I remarked upon the uniforms that consisted of bikinis, and we both responded in curious but respectively different ways.

My mom was frustrated that this was the uniform for the women and felt that the women’s bodies were being unfairly subjected to heightened sexualization and over exposure.

In my case, I somewhat agreed. I have learned far too much about the patriarchal operations of our society to disagree that the uniforms might have been originally intended for sex appeal and for appearances (at least in addition to practicality for playing the sport).

We also both did not fail to notice the outrageously different uniforms of the men’s team, consisting of long baggy shorts and roomy tank tops.

During this night, my family and I descended into a heavy debate concerning the validity of these uniforms and the surrounding feminism (or lack thereof) in requiring bikinis for women playing beach volleyball.

I admit without hesitation that throughout this debate, I never tried to pretend that I am an expert, or that I actually know very much at all about this topic. (If you recall, I do not sport.)

I was curious about the issue though, and I think it’s a thought provoking and controversial topic. So, I did a little research. (Let me emphasize that, even after my brief researching, I still in no way put myself forth as an expert, or as one with the “correct” answers. I simply report back what I discovered, and offer my own personal and individual opinions.)

I wanted to find out if women are, in fact, required to wear a bikini. I also wanted to read a bit more about the controversy surrounding these uniforms.

Here are some facts that I found:

The FIVB (Federation International de Volleyball) has relatively strict regulations for uniforms’ colors, markings, shapes, and specific measurements. Women Beach Volleyball players do actually have the choice of a bikini or a one-piece swimsuit, according to the 2004 edition of the Players’ Uniforms Guidelines for Olympic Games.

Strict guidelines indicate that on a bikini bottom, the waistline (on the hip area) must not be wider than 7cm. The specificity of the uniforms is surprising and feels excessive, but I am more than willing to overlook this in the face of the overwhelming support for the practicality of bikinis over other uniform options.

The FIVB has also increased its flexibility and variance of options in more recent years. I also have facts from the updated 2016 edition, which I mention later on.

Overall notes do indeed seem to prove that bikinis are the most practical and comfortable option for playing beach volleyball. According to ABC News and Holly McPeak, Bronze Medal Winner at the 2004 Athens Games, one piece swimsuits actually cause sand to fall down into the bottom - definitely uncomfortable. Bikinis are also are typically the outfit of choice when people play casually on the beach. Swimsuits are convenient then, and are familiar when brought into the Olympics.

Kerri Walsh Jennings, current Rio Olympics 2016 Beach Volleyball Star, has spoken out about uniforms and their surrounding controversy. Her comments have proved helpful to my curiosity.

In an USA Today Interview, Kerri Walsh stated, “I think it's part of the alluring part of our sport, which is women in bikinis, but on the flip side of that, we need to be wearing bikinis. You don't want to be wearing baggy clothes and be lost in your clothes…And that's one of the cool things about our sport — we've adjusted and found something that was right…we found something that is functional and sassy at the same time, which is a great combination.”

In response to the critiques of a bikini as the uniform, Walsh said, quoted in an article from The Huffington Post, “Kerri Walsh Jennings Shuts Down Beach Volleyball Bikini Critics,” that “the original way to play beach volleyball was in a bikini and board shorts, and I don’t know what else they want us to wear…when it comes to beach volleyball, we’re playing in 100-degree-plus weather…I think we’ve just gotta educate the public, take it with a grain of salt and make sure that we’re working hard and not playing up the sex appeal because it’s inherent anyway.”

Walsh illuminates the validity of bikinis as definitely the most practical and comfortable and useful of uniforms; however, she also touches on this tricky area: the balance of appearances and functionality. It’s a good point that attention to bikinis is an effective way to gain attention to the sport itself, I mean, isn't any publicity good publicity? But Walsh also points to the fact that the main focus should be on the game itself.

I think it’s unfortunate that this attention to the athletes’ bodies, often before their athleticism, is so naturalized over time that it’s easier to just embrace, rather than to fight against it as the wrong kind of attention.

Personally, I strongly disagree that sexuality is “inherent” in women’s bodies, and it is this sort of belief, I think, that if dispelled, could transform the attention focused on Women Volleyball players.

In an article from The Huffington Post, entitled “Olympic Volleyball Uniforms: Bikinis No Longer Required For Women,” it becomes clear that the effects of the uniforms, beyond practicality, are not unclear. This article quotes Denise Johns, a British Olympian, (from an original interview with The Sunday Times) as saying, “The people who own the sport [the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball] want it to be sexy…I used to play in shorts and a T-shirt and was reluctant to change. But if it gets volleyball attention, so be it.”

Additionally, from a website called stuff.co, an article (“Evolution Of Women's Beach Volleyball Uniforms”) reads that “In 2009, New Zealand netballer-turned-volleyballer Anna Scarlett said it was unfortunate the media focused on the bikinis and not the sport itself. "I find it frustrating, and I know the other players do too. I suppose unfortunately it has been sold a lot on the sexual aspect. If that gets numbers and people interested in the game then that's a good start…’”

Honestly, I feel somewhat downtrodden, burdened with the thought that some Women Athletes are content with negative and degrading attention, in the face of an alternative of no attention at all. I do wish that our society was progressive enough that these women could feel entitled enough to demand attention that’s focused on what really matters: their athletic prowess.

The inappropriate responses to the uniforms are far from scarce. The aforementioned article from stuff.co flashes back a male reporter asking Zara Dampney, UK Olympian, "Will you promise you will wear bikinis even if it rains?”

A article infamous among this controversial subject is “Here’s 20 Jolly Good Reasons to Feel Cheerful About the Games,” written by Boris Johnson in The Telegraph. Johnson, a British Politician, writes, “…as I write these words there are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade immortalised by Canaletto. They are glistening like wet otters and the water is plashing off the brims of the spectators’ sou’westers. The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers”

That article is rightfully infamous. It highlights the worst of the worst in terms of spectators of beach volleyball. Johnson’s apparent disregard for anything of interest in volleyball besides women’s bodies is appalling.

The upside of this whole controversy is that bikinis are an intentional choice that Beach Volleyball players choose to wear for their own comfort and performance.

The FIVB actually has a large amount of flexible options for uniforms, at least in the more recent 2016 edition of the FIVB Beach Volleyball Sports Regulations Handbook.

In this edition, which, like all before it, covers all the regulations and rules for the entire sport, there’s a wide variety of options for women pictured via diagrams. There are long sleeved tees, long leggings, short sleeved tees, knee length leggings, slim-fit tank tops, and spandex shorts. These all come equipped with length regulations, but overall there appears to be abundant choices for uniforms.

There has also been a lot of news recently about cultural sensitivity concerning uniforms. I’m happy to report that uniform regulations have been widely accepting of a variety of preferences across a wide range of cultures.

In the Huffington Post article, “Olympic Volleyball Uniforms: Bikinis No Longer Required For Women,” a spokesperson from the FIVB, Richard Baker, is quoted; "many of these countries have religious and cultural requirements so the uniform needed to be more flexible.”

The aforementioned article from stuff.co reports that “ Egyptian team Nada Meawad and Doaa Elghobashy shunned the bikini during their match against Germany on Monday morning (NZT) in favour of long sleeves and long pants - Elghobashy covered her hair with a hijab…The picture of the pair, the first Egyptian women's volleyball team to compete at the Olympics, was a stark contrast to what the sport has become known for, since it was added to the Olympic bill in 1996.“

I am extremely relieved to know how much flexibility is afforded volleyball players and their uniforms in scenarios in which they feel uncomfortable with the idea of the “traditional” bikini.

As I attempt to bring my research to a close, I have found that my worries surrounding bikinis as uniforms in Beach Volleyball have generally been dissuaded. Yes, the unnecessary attention on women’s bodies over their athleticism needs to be addressed and continually protested against. But as long as women feel most comfortable competing in their 2-piece swimsuits, nothing, not even degrading comments, should stand in their way of scoring gold.

My only lingering frustration lies with the contrast between men’s and women’s uniforms. The Washington Post in an article entitled “Scant Gender Parity in Uniforms for Olympic beach Volleyball,” reports that “Meanwhile, men’s beach volleyball players are dressed like a bunch of bros skittering about the sand. One of the rationales for the skimp-tastic women’s uniform is greater freedom of movement. If that’s the case then, men should be shirtless and in Speedos.”

I agree with writer Jonathan Capehart here. I think if there’s anything I would hope to see in the future of Beach Volleyball, it would be a decline in the binary opposition created between the constructed definitions of men and women.

Clothes are clothes. In the end, I do not believe that outdated rules for what clothing “belongs” to specific gender identities hold in our current and progressive day and age.

Cover Image Credit: Youtube

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