NZ gymnasts can now wear shorts over their leotards – why is this a big deal for female athletes?

Recent changes in New Zealand sporting dress codes have led to a collective sigh of relief in women’s gymnastics. No longer will competitive gymnasts be penalised for accidentally revealing their underwear while performing.

Indeed, Gymnastics New Zealand (GNZ) has finally modernised its uniform rules, allowing girls and women to wear shorts or leggings over their leotards – just like their male counterparts.

This decision was made following a survey of 200+ female competitive gymnasts, with GNZ concluding every gymnast should feel “comfortable and safe” when performing. Prior to this, female gymnasts could have points deducted from their final score for unintentional dress code violations while in action.

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Dress code pushbacks

This timely rule change builds on the past few years of global advocacy in which some sportswomen have voiced concerns about how their outfits impede their movements and their confidence. It’s hardly surprising to hear this, since women’s sport uniforms have traditionally been tailored for men, making some athletes uncomfortable.

Dress code pushbacks from female athletes led to worldwide outrage in July 2021, when Norway’s beach handball team was fined €1,500 (A$2,407) for wearing shorts instead of regulation bikini bottoms at a European Championship match.

The European Handball Federation officials claimed the shorts were “improper clothing” that defied the International Handball Federation (IHF) uniform rules.

Some female athletes have been pushing for more choice when it comes to sports uniforms.

A few months later in October, the IHF quietly modified its beach handball regulations, advising “female athletes must wear short tight pants with a close fit”. Meanwhile, men’s shorts must be “not too baggy” and they can be longer than the women’s shorts as long as they “remain 10 centimetres above the kneecap”.

In 2021, there were also dress code protests by female performers at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Switzerland. German gymnasts donned full-body suits, in response to the ongoing objectification and sexualisation of women in sport.

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Global sexual abuse of young gymnasts

It was no coincidence that the German gymnasts’ decision to cover up followed one of the biggest sexual abuse scandals in sports history – in the United States, 156 women gave testimonies at the 2018 sentence hearing for the former USA Gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, who was jailed for up to 175 years. A Netflix documentary called “Athlete A” proceeded in June 2020, detailing sexual abuse within USA Gymnastics and the failure of the sport to address this.

Other gymnasts were prompted to speak out across the world.

In the United Kingdom, multiple elite British gymnasts exposed the emotional and physical trauma they endured at the hands of their coaches. More than 400 submissions by traumatised UK gymnasts were subsequently documented in the 2022 Whyte Review, exposing widespread physical, emotional and sexual abuse by coaches.

In New Zealand, former Blenheim Gymnastics Club coach Gregory Pask pleaded guilty in March 2024 to more than 60 sexual offence charges against girls under his tutelage.

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Why do dress codes matter?

This is not just about dress codes, it’s about choice – when female athletes are given uniform choices, they are empowered and given a voice.

Recent research involving more than 3,000 girls across eight countries confirmed sports uniforms are an important influence on girls’ engagement in physical activity. If girls experience flexible uniform policies, it is possible to keep them active for longer.

Since many women are not physically active enough, this is imperative for girls’ future health and wellbeing.

When young girls see women being objectified by the media due to what they wear in sport, this often tells them women are valued for their bodies, rather than their athletic abilities.

Low self-esteem and appearance anxiety can be seeded early on in a girl’s life, especially when puberty kicks in and body satisfaction is already in decline. This can lead to teenage girls developing a body image or eating disorder, and dropping out of physical activity altogether.

Baby steps

None of this is a female issue – it’s a systemic issue.

Sex offenders in women’s gymnastics coaching circles, and archaic inappropriate dress codes for female athletes, confirm the patriarchy is alive and well in the institution of sport.

It’s all connected – girls and women participate in a male-dominated system that has pervasive and enduring gender inequities.

A culture of fear and silence has persisted for too long in women’s sport. But when predators are punished, and uniform policies are reformed, this indicates changes are afoot.

The ripple effect may become a tidal wave if female athletes are listened to, and systemic change will surely follow.

Yes, there’s a long and winding road ahead, but every little knicker and bra strap policy amendment paves the way for improved gender equity in the old boys’ club.

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