In 1933, the radical German actor Marlene Dietrich was detained at a train station for violating a ban on women wearing trousers. Nearly 90 years later, the women’s Norwegian handball team know the feeling.
On 21 July, the team were fined 1,500 euros (£1,295) by the European Beach Handball Championships for breaking the sport’s strict uniform rules. The dress code, which states that female players should wear bottoms that do not cover “more than 10cm on any sides…with a close fit and cut on an upward angle towards the top of the leg”, is essentially a bikini top and bottoms. In contrast, the men’s handball uniform is a vest and long shorts.
In a bid to be treated more like athletes and not simply moving bums to be leered at, the women’s team opted for shorts. “It’s so shocking that we have to pay for not playing in our panties,” one of the Norwegian players Tonje Lerstad told the BBC. This defiance attracted a storm of sympathetic outrage from women across the world. “I’m very proud of the Norwegian female beach handball team for protesting the very sexist rules about their ‘uniform’. The European handball federation should be fined for sexism,” tweeted the singer Pink, adding that she would even pay the fines of all the Norwegian athletes.
The sexualisation of women in sport has a long history. In 2011, the Badminton World Federation received heavy criticism after insisting all female players wear a skirt or a dress in order to “ensure attractive presentation”. More recently, in 2018 the French tennis player Alize Cornet was given a code violation after changing her shirt on the sideline at the US Open, revealing a sports bra. The tournament accused her of “unsportsmanlike behaviour”, before eventually issuing a public apology. (It goes without saying that male players often change their shirts, revealing their bare torsos.)
But as every woman knows, there have always been more rules for girls. While boys also experience uniform policing at times, girls face a myriad of unnecessary invasions about the way they dress from the moment they start school. From banning brightly coloured bras in case they might show under white shirts to the routine measuring of school skirts, girls are subject to the type of consistent humiliation that has simply become a permissible part of becoming a woman.
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At a young age, we teach schoolgirls that their bodies are to be simultaneously shamed and controlled; that they are always a hemline away from distracting their male classmates or, even more disturbingly, their male teachers. In February, a 17-year-old girl in Canada was sent home from school in tears because her dress, worn over a turtle neck jumper, made a male teacher feel awkward. One school in East Yorkshire has banned girls from wearing skirts altogether, as they made male teachers feel uncomfortable. In 2015, a 14-year-old girl was sent home from South Shields Community College because her teachers deemed her trousers “too tight”.
It is not surprising, then, that adult women in sport have accepted the absurdity of their humiliating dress codes for such a long time. From girlhood, women are told that their bodies are both dangerous and vulnerable; that the potential distraction of their legs must precede participation in their own education, and then even in their own athletic careers. The women on Norway’s handball team are brave, yes, but they shouldn’t have to be.
Wouldn’t it be radical if we could teach girls that the preferences of men are not more urgent than their own, that their participation in sport – or in school – is more important than the leering thoughts of strangers? Is it too much to ask that women in 2021 shouldn’t have to channel their inner Marlene Dietrich, fighting to be defined by more than how much fabric they have on their legs?