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Perspective: Modesty wins gold at the Olympics

The decision by some female athletes to wear what they want isn’t just about fashion; it’s about controlling their own sexuality

Pauline Schaefer-Betz, of Germany, performs her floor exercise routine at the Tokyo Olympics in a full-body unitard.
Pauline Schaefer-Betz, of Germany, performs her floor exercise routine during the women’s artistic gymnastic qualifications at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, July 25, 2021, in Tokyo. The German women’s team chose to wore full-body unitards instead of the more revealing leotard.
Gregory Bull, Associated Press

The concept of “modesty” is experiencing a bit of a golden moment at the Olympics, as women competing in Tokyo have stood up for their right to show as little or as much of their bodies as they please, challenging their sports’ rules on “proper” attire.

This week the German gymnastics team wore a full-body unitard that has traditionally only been donned by women competing from more religious or conservative countries. The German gymnasts weren’t alone. The Norwegian women’s handball team made headlines after being slapped with fines for daring to show less skin, opting instead for the uniform their male counterparts wear. Those fines are being paid for by pop singer Pink, who tweeted on Sunday, “I’m very proud of the Norwegian female beach handball team for protesting sexist rules about their ‘uniform’.”

That uniform? The International Handball Federation requires women to wear bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg,” per The New York Times. The sides of the bikini bottoms must be no more than four inches wide. However, men can wear shorts as long as four inches above the knee so long as the shorts are “not too baggy,” per The New York Times.

The fact that it’s harder to find modest clothing choices as a female is no secret to women and mothers of girls everywhere. What’s encouraging about this moment is that the concept of modesty isn’t just becoming more mainstream outside of religious and conservative circles, but that women fighting for the right to dress as they please aren’t just battling for the right to dress provocatively anymore.

No, we’re finally acknowledging that it’s just as empowering to cover up as it is to flaunt our bodies. And that cultural encouragement girls feel to show more, not less? We’re finally acknowledging that it’s not about empowerment, it’s about sexualization.

The Deseret News reported, “Germany’s gymnasts first wore unitards in April at the European Championships. Afterward, the German Gymnastics Federation said the outfits were a statement against the ‘sexualization in gymnastics. … The aim is to present themselves aesthetically — without feeling uncomfortable,’ the Federation said per CNN.”

These young ladies’ push for more uniform control cuts to the heart of why they’re opting for more modest choices: They want to control how sexualized their bodies are by those who are profiting off of them. Gymnasts are some of the most skilled athletes competing in the Olympics, but more than any other discipline, we have recently learned the high price for the sexualization baked into a sport where young women with bodies that still appear prepubescent are running and jumping in what amounts to little more than underwear.

In a piece for Vox about sexual abuse controversies within the sport, Anna North explains, “And beyond failing to investigate reports, many gymnasts have also said that the culture of gymnastics perpetuated physical and emotional abuse. Athletes have described being hit by coaches, being pushed to train while injured, and being repeatedly insulted, berated, and ridiculed. And many gymnasts have said they were subjected to constant body-shaming in a sport where being small and having little body fat is prized.”

While members of Team USA haven’t joined their German counterparts in covering up, at least two team members have expressed their support for the Germans’ decision. “I stand with their decision to wear whatever they please and whatever makes them feel comfortable,” Simone Biles said. “So if anyone out there wants to wear a unitard or leotard, it’s totally up to you.”

“I think those are really cool,” said Sunisa Lee, another Team USA gymnast, last month per The Washington Post. “I like it a lot because people should be able to wear what they feel comfortable in, and it shouldn’t be a leotard if you don’t want to wear it.”

For these young women, the decision to affirm their right to wear what they want isn’t just about fashion; it’s about controlling their own sexuality. With these small gestures, we’re hopefully witnessing the beginning of a shift among women about what it means to be empowered. Whereas once women were sold “Sex in the City,” spaghetti straps and mini-skirts, we’re now balancing the message to make clear that the priority is women’s agency and comfort. Covering up can be just as inspiring as baring all.

Bethany Mandel is a contributing writer for Deseret News, editor at Ricochet.com and a contributor to the Washington Examiner blog and magazine.