Gender, Sports, and ummm Uniforms

I took my two daughters to a college basketball game yesterday. It was a pre-season game so we easily got seats right at court side. As goes with many things sisterly, I have one daughter who is enchanted by the basketball players, and one who envisions herself up there with the cheerleaders doing those lock step dances and gymnastics.

Court side seats serve them both well, as a six and a half-foot basketball player is more fun to watch when you are looking up at her then when you are peering down from the bleachers. And cheerleaders become three-dimensional and sometimes wobbly daredevils from these seats as well. And of course there is the Donald Duck mascot who may forever charm the girls.

And yesterday we got the added treat of watching the UO Stunts and Gymnastics team come onto the court for halftime to dazzle us with synchronized gymnastics.   These young women were amazing and watching nearly 50 gymnasts work in tandem is really quite fantastic.

I love taking the girls to these events where close to 100 young women are performing with athletic excellence and also appear to have great camaraderie. The simple messages about female cooperative relationships and about females as athletes are not present enough in every day public life. Having access to college women’s sports is a real treat.

But as with every silver lining there is of course that cloud right in the middle that you cannot ignore when sitting five feet from the athletes.

Though we have all become accustom to the sexualized uniforms of the cheerleading squad, they once again stood out to us on this first game of the season. To see two dozen young (and nearly uniformly white) women in bikini tops on this freezing cold day in late November really stood out. And of course both their whiteness and their general lack of clothing in early winter stood out all the more because of their mini-uniforms and unnaturally sun tanned stomachs.  Oregon winter sun tans? I don’t think so.

Looking from the ghostly white legs of many of the basketball players to the brown tans of the bleach blond cheerleaders, the contrast was rather informing to my couple of young viewers. While cheerleaders athleticism is necessary, there certainly appears to be other criteria more important in selecting the squad.

But of course, we as a family were already on to that sad fact of cheerleading – it can’t just be a wicked fun sport – it also must be eye candy for a particular sector of the crowd.

What was more disappointing at this game was when the Stunt and Gymnastics squad came to the floor to do their amazing gymnastics in the smallest and tightest of bootie shorts you could possibly find.  From the front row my younger child said look mom, they’re wearing boys underpants.  You know those tightie boxer briefs…

Now after noticing the uniforms it became quickly apparent that  these girls were clearly all about gymnastics. When the 50 of them came rolling out onto the court pushing their own massive tumble mats in what my daughter called biker gloves, it was clear that they meant business.

And yet as they got closer and every curve of their body was in view through their skin-tight tiny shorts and short skin-tight shirts I wondered could there possibly be a performative excuse for dressing these young women up as eye candy as well.  I looked from this all female gymnast team to the male gymnastic cheerleaders on the sidelines.  These young men – the ‘stunt guys’ of the cheerleading squad – were in sweatpants and t-shirts and the contrast was again – painfully obvious.

The whole event reminded me of a blog I read at Sociological Images back during the Olympics. I remember what really stood out to me at that time was the contrast between male and female uniforms for the same sport.

I would really love to think this sort of gender coding of bodies doesn’t really matter. And if it weren’t for all of the bodily pathologies young girls face (from eating disorders to high risk sexual behavior) or for all of the sexual violence perpetrated by males on girls and women
or for the economic disparities between women and men embedded in the reproduction of gender coded careers or for…. well, you get my point.

Little things like sexualizing and objectify empowered females do matter. And it’s these little things we are forced to teach our daughters about at a very early age – ignore the uniform girls and pay attention to the skills and the teamwork these girls are capable of enacting in spite of it.

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