How Outfit Policies Reveal Sexist Attitudes in Pro Tennis

How Outfit Policies Reveal Sexist Attitudes in Pro Tennis

By Ryan Ricks

Recently, two major tennis tournaments have come under fire for their policies over outfits, of all things.

On August 28, the US Open gave tennis player Alize Cornet a code violation for simply changing her shirt at the baseline of the court. She said that the shirt was on backwards, so she had wanted to fix it.

The USTA (United States Tennis Association) stated that women should change off the court, using the benches on the sides instead, and that this action would not count towards the two bathroom breaks they have during a match.

However, most of the backlash comes from the fact that the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) has no such rule for women about changing attire on the court, while men are allowed to change their shirts on the court at will.

This event reflects another recent affair in the tennis community as well. The French Open has introduced a new dress code, specifically targeting tennis star Serena Williams’s catsuit that she wore to the last French Open. On August 24, the President of the French Tennis Federation, Bernard Giudicelli, said in interview with Tennis Magazine that, “[the catsuit] will no longer be accepted. One must respect the game and the place.”

The backlash for this statement has been especially clear, as people have taken to social media to defend Williams and condemn the French Open. Many have pointed out the medical reasons for the suit, as it was worn to help Williams’s blood circulation and prevent blood clots. Others have taken to calling this an act of policing women’s bodies.

So what makes these acts so important? Is it really worth it to get outraged over outfit rules?

Yes, it is.

The Alize Cornet situation tells women that they need to hide their bodies, they need to “go away” when they want to change a shirt. Why is changing on the court a luxury men can enjoy but women can not? What makes this so important to us that we need to make up a rule for it, even when there hadn’t been one?

Women’s bodies should not be regarded as something to be ashamed of, something to put away. With the growing popularity of the body acceptance movement, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a similar reaction movement developing, one that is using the platform of sports, advertisements, and other parts of pop culture to fit its needs of body-shaming.  

The situation regarding Serena Williams shows a different side of these same type of sentiments. In general, these two incidents are the same. Two women had their bodies policed because of outfits. The only difference is that Williams is a black woman, one who had been bashed over her body shape many times prior.

What, exactly, makes Williams’s catsuit more “inappropriate” than some of the extremely short skirts that other players wear? Those by definition show off much more skin, correct? Or is it because the catsuit highlights her curvy body shape? And why was there a need to specifically call out Williams’s outfit, when the new dress code will be a tournament-wide policy?

Perhaps we can find answers in the facts. Williams said that the catsuit made her feel “like a superhero.” Would taking away that suit take away her power?

Of course not, but we have to see this situation in the eyes of the rule makers, maybe even in the eyes of our society as a whole. To many people, seeing Williams in the status that she is in now, seeing a black woman, or maybe just a woman that doesn’t fit certain societal norms of appearances, be so successful makes them feel insecure and “uncomfortable.” Multiple times we have used different events to demonize Serena (such as the recent events that transpired at the US Open finals).

If we strip this event down to its bare minimum, then it is clear that as a society, we simply find a black woman wearing a form-fitting catsuit inappropriate. Why is this?

Is it the catsuit we despise? Or is it Williams’s comfort in her own body? Is it the changing culture that we find ourselves in, one that embraces different body shapes, especially curvy body shapes?

I can’t provide answers to these questions, only connections that these recent events in a major sport have with our society as a whole. These recent events are simply a part of a long trend of controlling women’s bodies. It will be interesting to see how sports and society intersect in the future, with the way body acceptance movements and their reactions are developing now.

Hopefully, we can put an end to the nonsense of creating rules just to control women’s bodies. If we want to do that, we need to thoroughly examine our own society and its values, to find what is keeping us from fully accepting different bodies.


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