The Scarlet & Black

The Student News Site of Grinnell College

The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

An Unsolicited Opinion: On Body-Shaming in Sports



Last week, CNN published an article about an Alaska high school student’s disqualification at a swim meet. The disqualification made national news because the student in question was disqualified due to the swimsuit she was wearing showed “too much of her backside.” While this, on its face, was a ridiculous reason to disqualify a swimmer, the student was wearing a standard team-issued swimsuit. This means that the official who made the disqualification took issue not with the cut of a particular swimsuit, but with how a standard school-issued swimsuit fit this particular girl.

The National Federation of State High School Associations released a diagram that purports to show how swimsuits should fit athletes, but the student’s mother spoke with CNN and said that the diagram is out of date because no racing suit fits that way anymore. The student’s mother also pointed out that her daughter’s muscular tone might have caused the swimsuit to fit improperly.

According to CNN, the official made the disqualification based on a “modesty rule” approved by the National Federation of State High School Associations. However, the rules require that officials take into account whether a student is “intentionally rolling up their swimsuit in order to expose their buttocks.”

Clearly, that was not the case in this particular instance, but it didn’t stop an official from deciding that a standard swimsuit, worn normally, looked inappropriate on a young high school girl. Thankfully, sanity eventually prevailed and the disqualification was overturned. But the student’s mother, when speaking to CNN, said she felt her daughter was body-shamed, and I’m inclined to agree.

You would hope that this story was only newsworthy because of its absurdity and that incidents like this don’t happen frequently, but a glance at the news and a few conversations with young female athletes reveal that body-shaming young female athletes isn’t as singular an experience as one would hope.

I’m not an athlete, but my sister is a competitive swimmer who grew up swimming in Alaska. When I called her to tell her about the controversy and how it had made national news, she was not surprised in the least. In fact, she described her own experience with body-shaming as a swimmer. I asked her if she thought it was a significant cultural issue within the sport, and she sighed and said, “at least in Alaska.”

She sent me her college application essay, in which she wrote about an incident at a swim meet. She and girls on her team were told that the Jolyn brand swimsuits they were wearing during warm-up exposed too much skin and would distract male swimmers.

My sister explained that they wear the knee-length racing swimsuits as tight as possible to cut down on drag, which means that the suits are extremely uncomfortable to wear at a swim meet for hours at a time. To reduce some of this discomfort, the girls on her team had started warming up in Jolyn brand swimsuits: comfortable, two piece swimsuits designed to stay in place during a competitive swim practice. Even though the swimsuits were designed to be worn while training, the girls were accused not only of wearing inappropriate swimsuits, but of wearing them only “to get attention from boys.”

If you read the news regularly, it’s clear that the tendency to sexualize the bodies of female athletes is not limited to Alaska; it’s a widespread phenomenon. Female professional athletes frequently have their appearance dissected online in ways that have nothing to do with sport and everything to do with conventional standards of beauty.

Women who compete in uniforms made of less material (gymnastics leotards, swimsuits, tennis outfits) are often subjected to higher levels of this type of scrutiny. Recent examples include but are not certainly not limited to the body-shaming of American gymnast Katelyn Ohashi and the sexual harassment of Australian football player Tayla Harris.

It seems that some people are only capable of viewing women’s bodies as sexual objects even in contexts where it is grossly inappropriate to do so—like when professional female athletes are performing their jobs or when student athletes are competing.

The cultural beliefs and practices that drive this sort of attitude have been thoroughly examined and explicated, and many lengthy books and essays have been written on the subject. But, ultimately, it comes down to this: if you think that female athletes competing at any level in their uniforms is obscene in some way, it’s your problem—not theirs. If you can’t officiate a high school swim meet without being offended by high school girls in swimsuits, get off the pool deck.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover
Donate to The Scarlet & Black
Our Goal

Comments (0)

All The Scarlet & Black Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *