Why leotards in gymnastics may be a more complicated issue than you think

farah_ann_abdul_hadi_balance_beam_artistic_gymnastics_sea_games_singapore_20150607_620_417_100Okay okay I apologise for the campy title of this post. But in a way, it’s not that far from what the post is about. Leotards in gymnastics ARE complicated. And most people aren’t really aware of some of the ways in which it IS a problematic issue. I’m writing this post because as a feminist, it’s interesting for me the way the debate over the Malaysian gymnast’s leotard at the 2015 SEA Games has taken shape. Just as a recap, Malaysian national gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi was criticised by some of her compatriots when photographs of her competing at the games appeared online. The negative comments concerned the way in which the leotard she was wearing outlines the shape of her genitalia. Apparently, according to Islam, this is not allowed. In the latest update, the president of the Malaysian Gymnastics Federation has said that they are planning to propose to the International Gymnastics Federation that Muslim gymnasts be allowed to wear “ethical attire” during tournaments. Here is a list of links where you can read more about the issue:

http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/rafidah-to-farah-anns-critics-were-you-watching-gymnastics-or-the-gymnast [also the source of the photo above]



Quite a few of the responses that I have read online (unfortunately not public posts, but personal status updates on Facebook. And even if some tweets are public, I’d rather not highlight specific people on my blog without getting their prior approval) espouse a liberal stand that derides the religious fundamentalism at the root of the criticism. While asserting that such a stand is definitely one that resonates with me, I’d like to supplement that with another perspective to this debate that I think we need to consider when demanding that everyone should be more accepting of “global standards” of attire in sports. And I make this argument not in spite of being a feminist, but because of it.

I think that this furore opens the way to thinking about other forms of oppression that the leotard signifies. It is not only religion that seeks to control women’s bodies. How DID the leotard become the “global standard”? There’s a larger context in which the leotard has a regulatory signification. In a paper entitled “Acrobats, contortionists, and cute children: The promise and perversions of US women’s gymnastics”, Ann Chisholm (2002:415) [1] argues that the gymnasts

“maintain a precarious balance not only between the superhuman and the merely human but also between the superhuman and the infrahuman (freakish). In turn, they represent ideal citizenship and extraordinary femininity, and they enact the promise of modern individualised heroism and empowered femininity,  while embodying the risk of the uncivilised other (of difference) in our midst.”

The body of the female gymnast thus carries many meanings, and based on this sort an analysis, we can assume that the way in which it is dressed is far from an incidental issue, or even one that is merely about what is convenient/efficient/attractive. Taking this further into the area of how women’s bodies are disciplined in gymnastics, Natalie Barker-Ruchti and Richard Tinning (2010:246) [2] suggest that

“the degree of discipline and submissiveness required by gymnasts is key in preventing these athletes from reflecting upon themselves as individuals, their conduct, as well as their sport, and thus using their experiences as a space to invent themselves. While the gymnasts’ physical strength and kinesthetic prowess challenged traditional ideas of womanhood, they did not consciously question traditional gender stereotypes or their sport. Rather, the challenging of traditional gender ideals was a side-effect, one that the gymnasts were subtly taught to hide through regulations such as clothing prescriptions for competitions and prescribed aesthetic sequences in their routines. The clothing partially hid the gymnasts’ muscular torsos and arms and emphasized their feminine body-line.”

How empowering IS the leotard then, for women gymnasts? And what are the implications for women in sports of this being the “global standard” of attire? Before even suggesting a way of answering those questions, we need to delve even further into what the leotard signifies about how femininity is constructed in gymnastics. Barker-Ruchti (2009:45) [3] describes how

“Until the late 1960s, women’s artistic gymnastics consisted of mature women performing gentle ballet-type exercises that were emotionally expressive and graceful. During the 1970s, however, the gymnasts’ performances and bodies changed dramatically. Young and sexually undeveloped gymnasts began to execute acrobatic- and risk-driven routines that consisted of complex air-bound combinations of gymnastics elements. The trend to acrobatics emerged in the former Soviet Union. Within this specific political context, a highly competitive, ambitious and ingenious sporting atmosphere fostered the development of the acrobatic trend in the Eastern Bloc countries and later in the West.”

This analysis leads me to think that the leotard in its current form is not just about sexualization of women in sports. In a much more complex way, it is also, simultaneously, about the infantilisation of women in gymnastics. To my mind, that is not much better than the way in which religion objectifies women and portrays them as nothing more than shameful walking vaginas.

In short, the “global standard” that we see as unproblematic is just as creepy as the awful comments young Farah received.


[1] Chisholm, A. (2002). Acrobats, contortionists, and cute children: The promise and perversity of US women’s gymnastics. Signs, 415-450.

[2] Barker-Ruchti, N., & Tinning, R. (2010). Foucault in leotards: Corporeal discipline in women’s artistic gymnastics. Sociology of Sport Journal, 27(3), 229-250.

[3] Barker-Ruchti, N. (2009). Ballerinas and pixies: A genealogy of the changing female gymnastics body. The International Journal of the History of Sport,26(1), 45-62.

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