Skirting the issue: women’s boxing and enforced femininity

(AFP/Getty Images) Italian boxer Marzia Davide (red) and Indian boxer Usha Nagisetty (blue) fight during their exibition match at the Assago Forum in Milan on Sept. 12, 2009.

This summer will mark a major milestone for women’s boxing, which will be officially represented at the Summer Olympics for the first time since the first woman laced up her gloves and climbed in the ring.  (Which probably happened a lot earlier than you think.)   And yet, because it seems like nothing can ever be easy, female boxers are facing yet another struggle – this time against their sport’s own governing body.

In 2010, representatives from the International Amateur Boxing Association handed out skirts to boxers who were competing in the Women’s Boxing World Championships.  The suggestion has surfaced again and again, with the AIBA’s president saying the skirts would be useful in helping audiences differentiate the female boxers from the male boxers.

The outrage has been considerable, from boxers and non-boxers alike.  More than 54,000 people have signed an online petition demanding the AIBA lay off the skirt obsession.  It reminds me of the outcry that followed the decision to put badminton players in dresses, and also about the controversy and scoffing that seems to follow every conversation about running skirts.  I saw it again not a few days ago, when Nike Women posted a photo of a running dress on its Facebook page and commenters responded with horror.

I wanted to explore this some more, because it’s fascinating to me that a piece of fabric can inspire such anger.  Obviously it’s not just the skirt that causes such controversy – it’s the motivation behind the skirt.  I can’t speak for all lady athletes but I know that even after three-plus decades of Title IX and the WNBA and the Women’s World Cup, there’s still a considerable element of society that finds something distasteful about women who are muscular, intense and competitive.  This seems to go double for women who engage in combat sports.  (By the way, the Slate article includes a photo gallery that, as the author notes, makes it apparent just how little skirts, glitter and halter tops do to disguise the fact that these women are taking part in a violent, brutal sport.)

So when women are told they should wear skirts while playing sports so they can seem more “elegant” and less like men, it’s just an affirmation of those messages all over again.  It’s like they are being reminded that, by virtue of daring to compete in sports, they are exhibiting a deficiency of femininity that must be corrected by any means possible, be it through photo shoots featuring evening gowns and lipstick or pink-sequined skirts to be worn during a boxing match.

But then this is the thing – the skirt is not just a symbol, but a very real way to enforce behavioral norms that are considered ladylike.   I know that when I’m wearing a skirt, I become more aware of how I sit – if my legs are crossed, and if they aren’t, how far apart they are.  I feel less able to move freely because I worry about giving unanticipated shows to strangers and coworkers alike.  I pull myself in a bit tighter, make my movements a little less smaller.  It’s almost as if the skirt demands it.

When you are an athlete in a sport that requires wide range of motion and aggressive physicality, wearing something that makes you feel self-conscious about your body can only cause problems, can only hurt your performance.  Athleticism requires the suspension of self-consciousness, requires almost a transcendence that supersedes mere categories of body and mind.  Once self-consciousness seeps its way back inside your mind, though, the beautiful performance you have constructed of sweat and desire and focus comes crashing to the ground.

This isn’t to say that I don’t wear skirts, or that I don’t enjoy them.  On the contrary, I do, especially during the summer.  I like wearing my black running skirt sometimes, too.  It makes me feel tough in a aggressively girly way.  But here’s the thing – I have the choice to wear it.  Here’s another thing – I don’t always wear it.  I often like to wear shorts.  Here’s the most important thing – I don’t have governing officials urging me to wear it under the guise of making sure audiences can tell I’m actually a woman.

If a female boxer wants to wear a skirt, if she feels tough and free in one, then by all means, let her.  But enough with pressuring athletes to do so.  The fretting about the femininity of female athletes really feels quite passe at this point, and I can’t believe it’s still happening.  Female athletes should not have to prove their femininity to be taken seriously.  We should not have to overcompensate for deficiencies that exist only in the minds of others.  After all, it’s the 21st century, is it not?  It’s time to leave the attitudes of earlier generations behind.

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9 responses to “Skirting the issue: women’s boxing and enforced femininity

  1. They should make skirts optional for female boxers. AND male boxers. 🙂 I mean, really. How about all this great progress, finally allowing women’s boxing in the Olympics, and what the hell is up with putting this ridiculous requirement in place? Well, I suppose we can’t have TOO much progress all at once.

    (Not that I’m a fan of boxing for either sex – hello dementia.)

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  3. Excellent article. It’s sad to see people try to limit women’s participation in sports with their outmoded notion of women’s gender-role. While a skirt is merely a piece of cloth, here it functions as a symbol — and a bad one. Men and women should be given equal, wide freedoms in every area of life.

  4. This: “I like wearing my black running skirt sometimes, too. It makes me feel tough in a aggressively girly way. But here’s the thing – I have the choice to wear it. Here’s another thing – I don’t always wear it. I often like to wear shorts. Here’s the most important thing – I don’t have governing officials urging me to wear it under the guise of making sure audiences can tell I’m actually a woman.”

    Exactly!

    I have a few running skirts, and I like them. Sometimes you want to look cute while you kick ass, you know? 🙂 But it’s my choice to wear one, not some other person’s mandate to ensure that my gender isn’t ambiguous. Sigh.

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