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Commentary: Why should women’s handball athletes be made to wear bikini bottoms?

The sexualisation of women athletes, as seen in the recent controversy involving the Norway women’s beach handball team, needs to end, says Lavinia Thanapathy.

Commentary: Why should women’s handball athletes be made to wear bikini bottoms?

Norway beach handball teams in 2019. (Photo: Twitter)

SINGAPORE: This week I broke my number one social media rule. A rule that I teach to my clients every day. A rule that I repeat in every training. That rule is to never post when you are angry or drunk.

Generally, this is good advice.

But this week I abandoned this advice and posted while angry. Very angry. Thankfully I was fully sober, so technically I only broke half a rule.

Why was I angry? I was, and am, angry because the sexualisation of women in sports is out of hand.


In case you missed this particularly outrageous news, Norway has been fined € 1,500 (US$1,770) on Tuesday (Jul 20) for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms at the European Beach Handball Championships.

The European Handball Federation (EHF) said it had imposed the fine because of a case of "improper clothing". Norway's players wore shorts instead of bikini bottoms during a bronze medal match against Spain in Varna, Bulgaria.

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The International Handball Federation's rules and regulations require male athletes to wear tank tops and shorts. 

But they require female athletes to wear tops with a midriff design and bikini bottoms that “cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” and with a side width of a “maximum of 10cm”.

A Germany player is silhouetted against a wall during a Beach Volleyball training session ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday in Tokyo. (Photo: AP/Mark Baker)

This is obviously not for the benefit of the players, given that some have petitioned to change the rule over the years. The alternative skintight shorts the Norwegian team wore instead were hardly going to stand in the way of their performance.

Norway's Handball Federation (NHF) said in a statement released through their official Instagram account: “We are … very proud about making a statement in the bronze final by playing in shorts instead of required bikini bottoms!”. 

“We really hope this will result in a change of this nonsense rule!” The NHF will also pay the fine on behalf of their players.


There is clearly little performance logic behind the sexist and bizarre rules that women in sports have to conform to just to compete.

These rules exist clearly to sexualise female players and are written with disgusting ideas about the female body. Is it any wonder why so few girls continue into competitive sports past their teenage years?

Times are clearly changing. In April, German gymnast Sarah Voss competed in a full-length bodysuit instead of the standard leotard at the European Artistic Gymnastic Championships, defying conventions.

German artistic gymnast Sarah Voss trains during a session, in Cologne, Germany, May 12, 2021. (Photo: EUTERS/Leon Kuegeler)

“For us, it was important above all to reach young athletes because it's often said that a couple of athletes right now do not want to continue in the sport during puberty due to the dress code,” Voss said in a statement.

This was a big move in the right direction. Until Voss challenged it, women gymnasts only wore leotards while their male counterparts had the luxury of wearing shorts or long leggings over their bodysuits.

I am tired of female athletes being masculinised or sexualised. Neither is acceptable. Both send the message that women don’t belong in sports, which has been a historically male playing field.

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It doesn’t help when sporting associations are led by men with archaic views like former FIFA president Sepp Blatter who once suggested in 2004 that women soccer players wear tighter shorts to “create a more female aesthetic" and increase the popularity of the game.

Women’s soccer is very popular indeed and women didn’t need tight shorts to accomplish this.

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These ridiculous rules and policing of women’s clothing cut both ways. And both ways attempt to control women’s bodies.

A decade ago in 2011, the Badminton World Federation issued new guidelines that required women plays “ensure attractive presentation” at tournaments, insisting that they “wear skirts or dresses” instead of shorts and pants.

This meant that female players from Muslim countries would be required to wear a skirt above their usual long pants if they were to follow it.

Then the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 2018 resorted to slut-shaming female golfers, even stooping down to measure the length of their skirts.

Zhang Jienalin made history in 2020 in becoming the first female golfer to compete in the 26-year history of the Volvo China Open. (Photo: AFP/KHALID REDZA)

Their guidelines included prohibitions on “plunging necklines” and “leggings” and players were warned not to wear skirts, skorts and shorts which reveal the “bottom area (even if covered by under shorts) at any time, standing or bent over”.

The secret to ending this policing of women’s clothing is to give women a choice. Where uniforms are required, the criteria for men and women should be as close as possible. 

It doesn’t hurt the sport in soccer, basketball or softball and it could easily be applied to other sports too. Where it doesn’t affect the performance of the sport, let women athletes choose how much or how little skin to show.

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This policing of women’s bodies doesn’t just exist in sports. Last week, photos emerged of the Ukrainian army marching female soldiers in heels. 

Ukrainian female soldiers wear heels while taking part in the military parade rehearsal in Kyiv, Ukraine on Jul 2, 2021. (Photo: Ukrainian Defense Ministry Press Office via AP)

Just let that sink in. Soldiers in heels.

Then there are the unwritten rules that women should wear heels or skirts in some offices and professions.

One of the great outcomes of lockdown for many women is that our feet have had a wonderful break from heels and we have collectively discovered comfortable shoes.

Some of us are dying to get our elevator heels back on and some of us may never wear heels again. It really should be no one else’s business but ours.

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Lavinia Thanpathy is the Founding Chair of Inspiring Girls Singapore. She is also the former Vice-President of the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations and the former President of PrimeTime Business and Professional Women’s Association.

Source: CNA/sl