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:
- Serena’s comments were dutiful “I think that obviously the Grand Slams have a right to do what they want to do.” Then in other press conferences this week at the US Open she has shut down questions on the topic.
- Other female players have been less forgiving, such as, Victoria Azarenka “You know, the things with the catsuit, I personally don’t understand it. No idea what means disrespecting the game playing in the catsuit? There is always a double standard for men and women. But we need to push those barriers.”
- Then, Alize Cornet, who found herself at the centre of another clothing related issue at the US Open this week commented “Bernard Giudicelli lives in another time,” Cornet said. “What he said about Serena’s catsuit was 10,000 times worse than what happened to me on the court on Tuesday, because he’s the president of the French federation and because he doesn’t have to do that. These kind of comments are totally shocking for me.”
- Fans and activists took to Twitter to respond, for example, Kristen Clarke, president of the US-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said the decision was “racist and sexist” and reflected how black women’s bodies are subject to increased restrictions. “Arbitrary dress code policies have been disproportionately used to target Black women in schools, at work and now on the tennis court. This is the unfair policing of Black women’s bodies.”
- On the male side of the sport, Rafael Nadal has spoken out in support of Giudicelli and the French tournament remarking “I think that everybody is fair to do whatever works better for the tournament.”
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.
The world of women’s sport is rife with historical and contemporary clothing debates, for example:
- Basketball (FIBA) – 2018 and the ability for female players to wear a Hijab as it had been previously banned https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/05/fiba-hijab-turbans-professional-basketball-170504055404989.html
- Golf (LPGA) – 2017 ‘strict new dress code’ – https://www.golf.com/tour-news/2017/07/14/report-lpga-sets-strict-new-dress-code-regulations-players
- Boxing (AIBA) – 2012 not requiring female boxers to wear skirts at the London Olympics – https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/boxing/17229496
- Volleyball (FIVB) -2012 changing guidelines and not requiring female players to wear bikinis – https://ftw.usatoday.com/2016/08/women-beach-volleyball-bikinis-men-uniform-guidelines-kerri-walsh-jennings
- Football (FIFA) – 2004 Sepp Blatter suggesting female footballers should wear “more feminine clothes… they could, for example, have tighter shorts.” https://edition.cnn.com/2015/05/29/football/fifa-sepp-blatter-gaffes-football/index.html
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.