Tennis, Gender and Cats: On and Off Court Body Politics

Nike posted a powerful advert on the 25th August 2018. It caught my eye as it is another striking image and loaded caption from the multi-billion dollar sports empire.

Plus, it involved one of my favourite sport stars – Serena Williams – heralded as the current queen of tennis and an activist for black, female and now mothers rights (amongst others).

Yet, the powerful advert was a response to the potential banning of this outfit, the catsuit. Last week the President of the French Tennis Federation, Bernard Giudicelli, when speaking about outfits at Roland Garros this year singled out the suit as being disrespectful and “it will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place”.

Responses from the media, other players and fans have been mixed:

What is playing out in this situation is quite fascinating for a student of sport and society, because distinctive parties are passing comment: fans, athletes, sport federations, media platforms, sponsors, activists etc.


This blog is not intending to take sides but demonstrate that in such a debate there are a variety of voices and opinions. Depending on what philosophical, pragmatic or theoretical standpoint you have will influence which voice/opinion you may find the most persuasive.

Interestingly, I find the role of the sponsor the most interesting in this debate. Nike and another of Serena’s sponsors Beats by Dre (as shown above) construct a powerful and empowering narrative. Meaning for me, Serena, will have leverage to disagree and battle practices she views as discriminatory, as she has done and hopefully will continue to do.

What will, also, be fascinating is the next move from the French Tennis Federation because if they do officially codify a dress code that discriminates against certain body types it could (and should) cause further opinion and debate.

Studio portrait 1907 – State Library of Queensland, Australia –

The world of women’s sport is rife with historical and contemporary clothing debates, for example:

The five examples, plus the catsuit debate connect to a myriad of: cultural, religious, racial, physiological or health, sexuality, etiquette, tradition, and gender based governance issues in sport. A who’s who of the UK 2010 Equality Act’s protected characteristics which applies to all legal parties within the UK. Yet, sports governing bodies, tournaments and athletes are not necessarily covered by national or international legal norms. Consequently, if the French Tennis Association does decide to ban and/or heavily regulate the dress code for next year we may never hear about it.

A glimpse of the odd, but wonderful world of body politics in sport.


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