Out of Bounds: Women in sports are shamefully sexualized

The other day, I read a story about a high school swimmer from Dimond High School in Anchorage, Alaska, who had been disqualified at a meet because of how her school-issued one-piece competition suit fit her body.

It was absolutely ridiculous. Why? Because having swam on a co-ed team in high school, I know that there is not much that is more revealing than a men’s competition Speedo-style suit.

I’m sort of kidding, but sort of not. 

The gist of this story is that 17-year-old state championship swimmer Breckynn Willis swam four races in a meet Friday and was disqualified from the second event after she won it. 

When the unnamed official made the call to disqualify Willis, Annette Rohde, who was also officiating the meet, said she told her, “I need to know how you’re defining this, because this is going to blow up.” 

Rohde was right. 

The official told Rohde that Willis’ suit was “so far up I could see butt cheek touching butt cheek.” Essentially, Willis was disqualified for the way her body fit into the suit her school had told her to wear. Her uniform wasn’t incorrect, but rather, her body type and how it looked in the suit was deemed “incorrect.” 

The Alaska School Activities Association implemented the existing uniform guidelines last year, and the disqualification policy this year. These rules have proven to be far too subjective, leaving it to the discretion of the referee to decide what is too revealing and whether or not it is intentional.

Willis’ disqualification was “heavy-handed and unnecessary,” the Anchorage School District said in a statement. “Our swimmer was targeted based solely on how a standard, school-issued uniform happened to fit the shape of her body.” The Anchorage School District was right to stand with Willis, especially given that she was wearing the team suit. 

Beyond that, it is natural for women’s suits to ride up during events. Competition suits are meant to be skin tight, creating as little drag as possible. As you move your arms to stroke, the shoulder straps of the suit tend to pull the backside up. 

But this issue existed long before Sept. 6. It started last year when one Anchorage parent commented that “You girls need to cover up for the sake of my boys.” It was a bold statement to make, given that women’s competition suits “cover up” more than that parent’s sons’ suits did. The key point: Men’s competition suits are very revealing, but they’re not sexualized. 

The Washington Post reported that another parent, the father of a child on the Dimond High School team, took photos of Willis’ backside. He then circulated those photos of Willis, then a 16-year-old, to other parents via email. 

There is nothing inherently wrong or inappropriate about anybody’s body. People like the unnamed referee and the two parents mentioned are the ones who create the issue. They sexualized a teenage girl’s body. Rather than focusing on her swimming, they focused on a high school girl’s butt. 

Willis’ disqualification was overturned this week, and she is now officially the winner of that 100 meter Freestyle event. 

This is a small victory, but it highlights the larger issue with how women in sports — or any industry, really — are acknowledged. All too often, the emphasis is placed on appearance rather than their achievements. 

Sexualizing female athletes is nothing new. Take, for example, how female athletes are portrayed in the media — even in sports magazines. Ben Wasike, a professor at the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley, analyzed every cover from 1954 to 2016 of Sports Illustrated and every cover from 1998 to 2016 of ESPN The Magazine. He confirmed that women on the covers were more likely than men to be portrayed in a sexualized manner, while men were more likely to be portrayed in active poses. 

It’s discouraging, especially for younger women, to see that female athletes’ achievements aren’t enough to exist on their own. Sure, their accomplishments get covered, but even at the highest levels, female athletes are often asked about their outfits or their love lives, things reporters would never think to ask male athletes in a post-game interview. 

A full analysis of how women are portrayed in sports is outside the scope of this 800-word column, but the outcry over Willis’ disqualification shows that we’re moving toward placing less attention on women’s bodies and more focus on their athletic ability. 

I would say that now that this is all over, Willis can get back to swimming. But I think this incident, although resolved, will spark discourse that calls into question not only how we recognize professional female athletes’ bodies in the spotlight but also younger athletes at the high school level. 

Jill Burke is a senior writing about sports in relation to current issues. Her column, “Out of Bounds,” runs every other Friday.