The dissimilarities between uniforms for men and women within sports demonstrate how female athletes are governed in inequitable ways that feminize and sexualize female players (MacDonald). Across the spectrum of sports, most female athletes are subjected to wear shorts or skirts, which use less material and are therefore more revealing as opposed to the male version of the sport. There is a cultural phenomenon today that focuses on making the nation through an idealized body, which has been predetermined based on historical assumptions of what it means to be a man or a woman.
In softball, a team game uniform consists of a team jersey, high socks, kneepads, sliding shorts, and shorts. More recently a trend has emerged around the age of 12 for girls to trade in their shorts for a pair of pants because they are seen as more professional and present numerous benefits in terms of practicality. This is a current ongoing debate within the sports between players, parents, and coaches, because current softball rules on all levels do not make a preference of shorts or pants, but require the entire team to we wear the same thing. I intend to show how female softball player’s uniform with shorts acts to reinforce society’s consistent sexualization and objectification of the female body by explaining the framework in which women are presented within sports, comparing the professionalism presented by wearing shorts or pants, and analyzing the practicality of shorts and pants.
In the early 1900s women were gaining new freedoms and breaking away from the stereotypical womanly roles that were expected of them: the mother and the homemaker. World War II opened up several doors that kept woman out, and women were welcomed into the factories and onto the playing field. Women athletes relate to American society as a whole because the status of women in softball reflected the status of women in society. Women’s softball and baseball became very popular forms of entertainment and because men were oversees, woman sports were able gain an audience and recognition as competitive athletes. Despite the fact, that woman drew large crowds to their games, the woman playing the game were very aware of the stereotypes and negative feelings towards them. Women were deemed masculine and unladylike. The owners of these leagues were aware of society’s impression of women in athletics and utilized every opportunity to “feminize” the sport, which usually meant their appearance (Doyle, 10), specifically their uniforms.
The attempt to feminize softball determined the uniforms, which began to take the shape of costumes, short skirts and even shorter shorts. While very attractive, the skirts accomplished nothing in terms of practical uses. The uniforms did nothing to protect the legs of women sliding and diving into home. The uniforms might have looked good, but they were obviously made with alternative motives other than practicality. The impracticality of the uniforms made it very clear that the owners of the team were trying to gain an audience where the women are the spectacle and not the sport.
Even today, commentators reinforce the ways in which sports are portrayed as inappropriate for women. Female athletes are framed by their personal lives to give them legitimacy as an athlete. Commentators not only report on events, but they give a message to the audience regarding what it means to be a female athlete because there is a supposed journalistic objectivity the audience is led to believe. A study was conducted during the 2009 Softball College World Series to explain the way the media is poorly reflecting woman athletes. The first obvious result was the gendered hierarchy that was constructed by referring to female athletes as girls and ladies and male athletes as men. The connotations represented with the terms imply a level of maturity and competence based on the way in which the athlete is described. Language that belittles woman reinforces the masculinity of the sport by separating the female from the athlete. Even with three out of the four commentators at the College World Series being women, the “Commentators directly attributed success to a player’s physical appearance. Second, commentators emphasized the importance of hard work, especially during the off-season, and its impact on being a successful athlete. Third, when athletes struggled on the field, their struggles were often related to emotions and emotional stability.” (McCallister, 83). There are certain expectations that woman are expected to uphold that detail how women are supposed to act, look, and feel even while participating in an athletic sport. The commentators during the event made it very clear that feminine-appearance was a key for success on and off the field. This idea of attributing success to appearance reinforces the idea that woman athletes attract the male gaze. “The overall effect of framing player performance in terms of appearance and emotion is the reinforcement of sport as a masculine domain and therefore inappropriate for women” (McCallister, 88).
Sports have always been a powerful dynamic in framing gender relations because of the separate spheres that men and women inhabit. Sports are seen as masculine because they evoke violence, aggression, and competition. There is a common misconception that male sports are more dangerous than woman sports. An article in The American Journal of Sports Medicine discusses the incidences and effects of the techniques necessary for sliding for collegiate baseball and softball players. “When looking at baseball and softball separately, injury rates were higher for softball for both head-first slides and feet-first slides. . . due to poor sliding technique, smaller field, and inadequate equipment.” For these varying reasons, more injuries occur in softball than baseball. The main reason for injuries that occur while sliding in softball, is the “the players on softball teams still wear shorts instead of long pants, which leave the lower extremities exposed and at risk of injury during sliding” (Hosey, 363). Uniforms are supposed to be a means of protective wear in athletic sports, but shorts do not provide the protection necessary for the sport.
Many coaches and teams prefer pants because it removes the fear of sliding and getting injured, but shorts are still very popular, from little league to college. When I played softball, I preferred to wear shorts despite the many bruises and injuries I received because at that time softball pants were not very popular. Even when pants became a trend on the field, the pants girls wear wearing did not fit properly because they were made for boys’ baseball. Since the demand has increased, retailers now carry softball pants. Once the pants were made to cater to girls and woman, the phenomenon exploded. The increasing interest in pants as part of a softball uniform explains how more attention should be paid towards the potentially dangerous relationship between revealing uniforms, safety, and sexualization (Macdonald, 88). Pants afford girls the ability to play the game without fear of injuring their legs, the consistent exposure to the sun, or revealing their bodies while playing the game.
Throughout the debates in online forums, many people believe that uniform should be based upon personal preference because some girls like the comfortability that shorts offer despite the risks, but uniforms depict solidarity. A study was conducted in 1974 documenting the importance of uniforms for athletic teams. “Pictures of athletes in uniforms would be perceived more favorably on the dimensions of professionalism, team spirit, and over-all ability and possibly even on the less relevant dimensions of muscular strength, coordination, and native ability than identical poses of those same athletes wearing casual clothes appropriate for sport” (Harris, 59). Because uniforms are a consistent factor in professional athletics, the audience can perceive the uniform variations within as a sign of unprofessionalism. Also, in Major League Baseball and professional softball organizations, the uniform worn are pants which gives the notion that pants are the appropriate attire for the sport. “The widespread practice of wearing athletic uniforms has been justified and . . . pride in the group is more apparent, and enthusiasm and efficiency are greater in the individual when the group is uniformly dressed” (Harris, 59).
Female athletes have made great strides in sports participation, yet they are still being limited because sports are still masculine dominated. Because there is a common misconception that sports are solely for men, the emphasis on physical appearance causes female athletes to overcompensate for her femininity while competing in an athletic realm. Revealing female uniforms have been a successful way of attracting audiences, sponsors, and media attention, but are gaining visibility based on sexualizing woman. In order to move towards a more equal playing field, we need to start thinking more critically about the practice and its implications of how uniforms affect woman based on their practicality and function versus the visual appeal.
Macdonald, Kelly. Bump, Set, Spike…Spandex: Examining Coaches’ and Athletic Director’s Interpretations of the Canadian Interuniversity S[ort Women’s Volleyball Rule on Player Uniforms. Thesis. University of British Columbia, 2009. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2009. Print.
Doyle, Amy M. Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend: An Oral History of Women’s Softball in America. Thesis. Muncie, Indiana, 1999. Muncie: Ball State University, 1999. Print.
McCallister, Leslie, and Jessica Mahone. “Youth, Appearance, and Emotion: Commentator Framing of the 2009 Softball College World Series.” Journal of Sports Media 7.2 (2012): 75-93. Project Muse. Web. 26 Feb. 2014.
Harris, Mary B., Sandra Ramsey, Diana Sims, and Marcia Stevenson. “Effects of Uniforms on Perceptions of Pictures of Athletes.” Perceptual and Motor Skills 39 (1974): 59-62. University of New Mexico. Web. 26 Feb. 2014
Hosey, Robert G., and James C. Puffer. “Baseball and Softball Sliding Injuries.” The American Journal of Sports Medicine 28.3 (2000): 360-63. American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine. Web.