Debriefing: Bikinis and Beach Volleyball

Since beach volleyball debuted at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, some have accused that its uniforms for women are unnecessarily skimpy. During a break from the preliminary beach volleyball games last night, an ad featuring Jennifer Kessy, member of the US women’s beach volleyball team, aired. The short commercial for CoverGirl’s Outlast Lipcolor featured Kessy in a bikini. Until recently such short swimsuits were the required uniform worn in competitive women’s beach volleyball, leading some to question its legitimacy as a sport.

Kessy’s endorsement, “I’m going for the gold. And the pink,” may not have sat well with some groups who oppose the objectification of women that the cosmetics industry has promoted. The Australian Sports Commission has long-described the bathing suit uniforms worn in women’s beach volleyball as “sexploitation,” focusing “attention on the athletes’ bodies rather than for any technological, practical or performance-enhancing reasons”
As the diagram from the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) handbook illustrates, the official uniforms for men reveal less of their bodies than the women’s.

Diagrams of regulation uniforms for beach volleyball. FIVB, Olympic Beach Volleyball Tournaments, Specific Competition Regulations, 2004.

In cold weather, players have always been permitted to wear long-sleeved shirts and leggings (preferably under swimsuits). This spring the FIVB modified its rules so players whose cultural beliefs prohibit them from wearing revealing bathing suits are permitted to wear shorts and sleeved tops instead.

The ruling, combined with the cool temperature in London (yesterday’s high hovered near 67° F), led some to fearfully speculate that the Olympic women’s beach volleyball players would compete covered, disappointing spectators. When the US /Australia preliminary match occurred at 11:00 pm last night, the chilled air prompted the Australians to wear leggings and long sleeved shirts under their bikini tops (evoking censure from some fans).

But, this morning, Reuters posted an article that headlined, “Olympics-Beach Volleyball-Women Wear Bikinis with Pride.” The interesting article begins by acknowledging that beach volleyball players face a conundrum: “they have to be sexy to get noticed but they are not taken seriously as sportswomen because they are sexy.”

The article commends the women’s teams who continue to compete in bikinis, applauding their confidence in their bodies. It admits that athletes, like American star and bikini-advocate Kerri Walsh, are savvy enough to recognize that their swimsuit-clad bodies fuels media coverage and generates advertising sponsors. In short, they expose themselves to create exposure for their sport.

And what, they ask, is wrong with that? In America, especially, women’s sports are marginalized, taken less seriously, and receive less media coverage than men’s sports. Some feel it’s necessary to adopt any strategy that results in media interest. If the attention they generate by wearing bikinis lures spectators who might not otherwise have watched, and if those viewers develop an appreciation for how hard the athletes work and realize that these women are real athletes, then perhaps the end justifies the means.

Ethelda Bleibtrey (center) posing confidently with rolled stockings, circa 1920. George Grantham Bain Collection

Some Olympians in the past also pushed boundaries, though these many seem minor to us today. Ethelda Bleibtrey, winner of three gold medals in swimming at the 1920 Olympics (100, 300 m freestyle and 4 x 100 m relay) and the first American woman to win an Olympic swimming title, preferred to have bare legs on the beach at a time when public ordinances stipulated that women’s legs be covered. In 1921, still a media darling for her Olympic feats, she was playing beach baseball with members of the Ambassador Swimming Club in Atlantic City. She and the other girls had removed their stockings which violated city laws. Police ordered the girls to either cover themselves or leave the beach. Bleibtrey complied by leaving the beach–she refused to pull on her stockings. Her outspoken action generated publicity. Some may say that the contemporary women’s beach volleyball team is simply doing the same–raising awareness.

Perhaps. Even though CoverGirl’s ad featuring Kessy shows her clad in only a bikini, the choice is justifiable—it is her sport’s uniform. Furthermore, she’s not standing idly on the beach, staring into the sunset, dabbing her lips with color. The ad depicts her actively– jumping, diving and spiking the ball—sending a far more positive message than most cosmetics ads. Her voice-over states: “I’m strong. I’m beautiful. I am a CoverGirl.” Isn’t that a powerful message for women?

Yes! (… and no). Kudos to CoverGirl for choosing to actively showcase Kessy’s athleticism. The company also asked boxer Marlen Esparza, the first American women to qualify for Women’s Boxing in the Olympics, to endorse Outlast. The limited-edition packaging of the products honor both Kessy and Esparza while they compete in the Olympic Games. CoverGirl’s promotion of these strong athletes is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Yet, undeniably, Kessy’s long and lean body reflects a traditional standard of beauty set by supermodels. What about women—athletes or not—who don’t reflect that idealized standard? Do these ads help change cultural standards?

Perhaps. But progress is slow. In May, in its Femail section the [UK] Daily Mail online featured an article about Britain’s women’s beach volleyball team with photos showing four players practicing in their tiny bikinis on the greens in in Parliament Center. The paper admitted that activity doubled as a promotional ploy and an illustration of increased traffic predicted to occur during the 2012 Games–they knew that bikini-clad women would command attention.

The players draped arms and posed for photographers, providing a front and rear view of their bodies. Clearly, the shots were intended to provoke commentary. And they did. Hundreds of comments poured in. Some remarked with exasperation on the skimpiness of the bikini uniform in general. “Shorts would be more appropriate – looks like an excuse to wear skimpy gear.” “…is this a sport or a bikini competition?”

The majority of the comments, however, critiqued the physical appearance of the women. “These girls look like they need to train harder. They are not exactly lean and mean machines, are they?” “a couple of them look like they need a diet”
“If the athletes had nice bodies maybe their [sic] would not be the complains [sic] about skimpy outfits. In case of these females they should be wearing track suits!!!!”

Women athletes face immeasurable challenges—devoting their lives to training, competing, and even trying to generate interest in their sport (the Association of Professional Volleyball–the organization that sponsors a beach volleyball tour in America–went bankrupt in 2010. It’s since found a new owners). It seems immensely unfair that women athletes have to endure intense scrutiny and severe criticism about their bodies—ironically, often from other women.

How do you react when you seem an “imperfect” woman in a bathing suit?