Why Figure Skating Is One Of The Final Barriers To Gender Equality
The Olympic sport has historically been arguably over-involved in what its female athletes do – or do not – wear.
As her name is blasted over loudspeakers to frenzied cheers and applause from the crowd, Maé-Bérénice Méité glides into the center of the ice rink and takes up a delicate yet powerful stance; her hands out by her sides, palms up, as she stares up at the ceiling.
The first few strums of a guitar fill the room, as an acoustic cover of Beyonce’s ‘Halo’ starts playing, and Méité begins dancing. A black-and-gold unitard covers her entire body, leaving only her arms exposed.
She twirls and spins across the glistening rink, a monochrome figure standing stark against the pure whiteness of the ice, the golden embellishments on the top of her costume twinkling as she jumps and flips and loops throughout her routine.
The gentle grace of her opening soon morphs into an energetic and mesmerizing performance set to Beyonce’s Run The World. As the lyrics pound out the question “Who runs the world? Girls!”, Méité shows of her prowess by spinning on the spot, reaching behind her as she twirls and effortlessly lifts a leg straight up behind her head.
She finishes her routine by power-fisting the air, a proud smile etched across her face.
In what should be considered remarkable because of her grace, skill, and maneuvers on the ice, instead, Maé-Bérénice Méité was making headlines for the quite unremarkable stunt of not doing her routine in a skirt.
An extremely talented and hard-working athlete performed an Olympic sport; and the main reaction was ‘Wow, she didn’t wear a dress.”
Unfortunately, this perplexing response isn’t new.
Indeed, figure skating is an Olympic sport which has historically been arguably over-involved in what its female athletes, referred to as ‘Ladies’, do – or do not – wear.
While figure skating could be considered the first equalitarian sport, being the oldest Olympic sport women could legally compete in, there have been some problematic and sexist currents running beneath the ice since the first female athlete slid into the competition in 1902, even though she wasn’t technically meant to be there.
A woman’s place
Madge Syers entered the World Figure Skating Championships because of a loophole – it didn’t explicitly state anywhere that women couldn’t compete. She came second overall, and the Swedish skater she placed behind even offered her his gold medal, saying he believed she deserved it, and should have won.
Clearly, the argument that women should have a place in the sport had been made. However, in response, the WFSC closed the loophole and banned women from competing, citing skirts as their main concern, arguing the long skirts which were worn at the time made it too difficult for judges to see female skaters’ feet, thus being the first instance of wardrobe-related woes for women figure skaters.
Once the ban on women in the sport was lifted, it was only a matter of time before the sexist fascination with what outfits women wore while competing slinked in again. At the 1920 Olympics, American figure skater Theresa Weld performed the Salchow move – a jump-and spin maneuver – and was reprimanded when her skirt flew up to her knees. Far too risque, apparently, the debate on whether figure skating was female-appropriate was reignited.
But nevertheless, women persisted. And in 1924, Norway’s Sonja Henie spun on the ice in a short skirt for the first time. Granted, she was only 11 years-old, which is why she could ‘get away with it’, the move nonetheless ushered in a new standard for skaters who came after her, until short dresses and skirts were the unofficial uniforms for female figure skaters.
And because the rule was unofficial, it was open to interpretation. After several decades of skirts and dresses adorning women skaters as they twisted and twirled on the ice, two women decided to shake things up.
Dressing down sexism
In a never-seen-before move, American skater Debi Thomas wore a full-body unitard in the 1988 Olympics, a stark contrast to competitor Katarina Witt’s outfit – a barely-there, feathered and skirtless leotard which revealed her posterior.
Immediately after, the International Skating Union created a rule stating that skirts which covered the hips and backside were required for the ladies’ competition. This rule, often called the “Katarina rule” also cancelled out leotards and unitards. It wasn’t until 2004 when these two body-covering outfits were re-allowed into competitive figure skating.
And yet, it’s been well over a decade since then; sowhy did the audience collectively gasp when Méité dazzled in a similar outfit in her short program this year?
The art of body policing female athletes
The official handbook for the ISU is filled with terms with jarringly sexist overtones, stating female competitors must be “modest, dignified and appropriate for competition”, and avoid being “theatrical” or showing “excessive nudity”.
The sport is still considered by most to be archaicly conservative, and doesn’t cope well with women fighting against the norm and daring to expand beyond the traditional skirt or dress which is expected of them.
But, like most instances of sexism, there is a level of irony here.
Méité’s skirtless unitard allowed her to complete her routine without the added challenge of her outfit falling down, flipping up, or failing in any way. This cannot be said for at least two of her fellow athletes.
Gabriella Papadakis, one half of the French ice dancing team, had her left breast exposed when her dress became undone early in her routine. South Korean ice dancer, Yura Min, also had the back of her top fall open during her routine, and had to attempt to keep her shirt from flinging off as she spun and dipped throughout the rest of her short program.
And because, apparently, women’s bodies are still sinful and must be covered, Papadakis’ unremarkable breast became a hot news topic, repeatedly likened to the 2004 Superbowl ‘incident’ involving Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake and a nipple.
So, basically, women can’t win in figure skating. They either cover their bodies in athletic-looking (and practical) unitards and leotards and make the news because they didn’t wear a skirt, or they wear short dresses and barely-there costumes and run the risk of having their breasts and body parts exposed – which breaks the minds of people who can’t bear to see a nipple in any situation which isn’t sexual.
Short skirts and dresses are practical for figure skaters. It allows for free movement and they can make a gorgeous site on the ice – and figure skating is a very visual sport.
But unitards are equally just as practical and visually stunning, so the hubbub which reverberates around the Olympics when a woman dares to be different – and probably warmer – by donning a body-covering costume needs to stop.
The fascination with a woman’s nipple being ‘exposed’ and the way this ‘wardrobe malfunction’ overshadows her performance is no longer in sync with the era of the sport. But, in a competition where ‘being pretty’ is one of the main aspects scrutinized by audiences, judges and the media alike, and in a world where ‘pretty’ tends to equal outdated ideals of femininity, it’s perhaps not surprising that athletes like Méité are still attracting attention for reasons other than their athleticism.
Featured image via shutterstock.com.
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