I'm so tired of being reminded, in ways both subtle and overt, that many view the bodies of women and girls first and foremost as sexualized things. That young girls must worry more about how their bare legs affect the boys and men around them than how those legs are working to make them great. That young women must be conscious of the fact that their bodies, even in places as clearly nonsexual as a sporting competition, might be evocative or arousing.
It's happened again, this time to a young, fantastic swimmer in Alaska. A 17-year-old state champion for Dimond High School in Anchorage had her winning heat time erased on Friday because she was disqualified for the way her swimsuit fit. A meet referee deemed the suit a violation of the National Federation of State High School Associations' modesty regulations, despite the fact that the suit was team-issued, none of the other swimmers wearing it was penalized and the swimmer in question had worn it without an issue at three prior meets.
One of the other officials working the meet, Annette Rohde, told the Anchorage Daily News that she was uncomfortable with her colleague's decision: "I told her," said Rohde, "'I need to know how you're defining this, because this is going to blow up.'"
Rohde was right. A blog post about the incident, written by Lauren Langford, the coach of another team in the district, went viral. Langford believes the young swimmer was singled out because of her race and her body, not her suit.
"All of these girls are all wearing suits that are cut the same way," Langford told The Washington Post. "And the only girl who gets disqualified is a mixed-race girl with rounder, curvier features."
According to NBC affiliate KTUU, the same official approached the swimmer's younger sister last school year to complain about the fit of her suit, and Langford said other parents have told the girls' mother that her three daughters, all talented swimmers, "need to cover up for the sake of their sons."
"These young swimmers aren't being punished for wearing their suits in scandalous or provocative ways," Langford wrote on Medium. "But rather because their ample hips, full chests, and dark complexions look different than their willowy, thin, and mostly pallid teammates."
Langford also revealed that the parent of another swimmer had previously taken photos of the disqualified swimmer's backside in her suit and emailed them out to other parents "as evidence her attire is immoral."
Imagine the embarrassment, confusion, anger and disgust this girl must feel, knowing that these adults are documenting her. Knowing that these adults see her as a distraction, a temptation, not the right shape or size, as "other." And it's the adults who are the problem here, make no mistake of it. The people around this young woman, whether influenced by prudishness, racism or misogyny, are the problem, not the girl's swimsuit or her body.
Thankfully, her win has been reinstated. On Tuesday, the Anchorage School District filed a formal appeal claiming the disqualification was "heavy-handed and unnecessary" and that the swimmer "was targeted based solely on how a standard, school-issued uniform happened to fit the shape of her body." Later Tuesday, the Alaska School Activities Association sided with the school and overturned the disqualification.
The ruling is the right one, but it shouldn't have been necessary. Girls shouldn't be paying the emotional price for the mistakes of the adults around them. And who's to say whether the win would have been reinstated were it not for the outcry from Langford, reporters and on social media. What happens next time, when there isn't an opposing coach willing to stand up for what's right?
There are endless tales of girls being sent home from school because of sexist and subjective dress code violations. Countless stories of women being harassed, punished or criticized for their work attire, whether while reporting on television or working in the House of Representatives. And of course in the sports world, this young swimmer's disqualification is just the most recent case of policing female athletes' bodies.
Remember tennis player Alize Cornet's punishment at the US Open last year? Or Serena Williams' catsuit controversy at the French Open? Or the Rowan University track team that dared to wear sports bras during practice?
The last one was especially frustrating to see last year because I'd experienced a similar incident nearly two decades earlier as a track athlete at Cornell. A head coach for one of the men's teams argued that our sport-specific training gear was "a distraction" to the football players in the varsity weight room. The standard school-issued shorts were not ideal attire for athletes jumping into sand pits, running long distances and performing other tasks specific to our sport, so we wore spandex leggings. Demanding that we change clothes before entering the weight room because another team's players weren't focused enough on their own training assigned blame to our team for the actions (and reactions) of the men's squad. Ultimately I got my teammates to sign a petition proclaiming the sexism inherent in the request, and the issue was dropped.
The fact that we're still nitpicking the uniforms and objectifying the bodies of female athletes in 2019 is beyond disheartening. It's a cruel reminder that many cannot -- and will not -- separate women and girls from their sexuality, no matter the circumstance.
We are teaching our girls that their bodies are not their own and that their very shape might be shameful. The offending adults may believe they're safeguarding boys or protecting girls, but they're instead perpetuating the idea that the actions of boys can be blamed on girls not properly protecting or displaying virtue.
Find me the articles on wrestling singlets that are too tight or stories about boys sent home from school because what they wore to class was "distracting." I'll wait.
We send damaging messages to our girls every time an official singles out a competitor for the shape of her body, every time a referee views an on-court uniform change as an act of exhibitionism instead of efficiency, and every time an administrator seeks to change the behavior of girls because of a potential distraction to boys. We limit the greatness of girls and women by pulling them away from their game, their work -- hell, their walk down to the street -- to gawk, ogle, judge and shame.
This young swimmer is just beginning to understand the ways the world will steal her body from her and turn it into an object. I'm sad that we couldn't change things in time to save her from fighting the same battles we had to fight. I'm sad for the tears she'll shed and the time she'll waste. The objectification and commodification of female bodies is nothing new, but it's sure getting old.