I’ve written before about my thoughts and feelings around dress codes and the way they are unfairly enforced against girls and are rooted in patriarchy and misogyny. I was thrilled when Seattle Public Schools announced they were abolishing most of the dress code guidelines which had previously focused almost exclusively on what the girls were wearing.
This week, we have a news story blowing up about a female swimmer disqualified from her race because her school-provided suit did not cover enough of her butt. I’m a USA Swimming Official. I have a competitive swimmer. You think I don’t have things to say about this?
This post, however is about why fighting against this matters. Fighting against this kind of discrimination (which local parents feel has elements of racial as well as gender bias) is necessary because it addresses a sin (yup, I went there) in our society that is so pervasive many don’t even realize they are doing it. I’m talking about the sin of sexualization. Sexualization is focusing on a person only as their sexual nature, ignoring the fullness of their humanity; effectively robbing them of their sacred worth.
The reason why we have to focus on the damages of sexualization is precisely because of how indoctrinated it is, even among women. I hear it frequently at the pool regarding girls swimsuits. Swimsuits are made to be tight. They are meant to reduce the friction of water across the body. But I think the most significant way to analyze the impact sexualization has on young women is to not talk about girls at all. Let’s talk about the boys.
Many male swim suits can be measured in INCHES of fabric. Very little of any competitive male swimmer body is covered by anything. Many males wear “jammer” suits that extend down to their knees, but by the time they are racing in high school or at upper level meets, about half of men (seems to change from year) wear small race suits like these:
Coverage isn’t the only discrepancy. Like girls’ suits, they are intended to compress. In the photo of Olympian Ryan Lochte above, the suits dig into the flesh at both waist and legs. They strap tightly across the butt and just as tightly across their penis and testicles. The fabric is thin enough to be see-through on the legs, but has a double-layer across the pubic area. The nature of what can be seen through these suits is one of the reasons USA Swimming bans all cameras and cellphone use behind the starting blocks and in locker rooms. But no one, anywhere, ever says a word about these suits being inappropriate or disqualifies the men wearing them.
Which is not surprising because our society has not conditioned us to sexualize men, adult or youth. To see only body parts and sexual gratification instead of the the totality of his humanity. We don’t experience advertising that only shows a guy’s “package”, forcing our gaze there. We don’t have kids clothing designers intentionally cutting pants to augment the crotch on boy’s Tuffskins. Parents don’t have to worry about if the outfits they buy at Target will “cover enough” of their boy’s body to meet most school dress codes. And even if you encounter advertising or movies that *do* focus on male anatomy or present men in a sexual way, society *still* regards that as positive. We don’t regard male bodies and male private parts as anything other than worthy of pride for the implied strength and virility.
At the end of the day for this story, we are really talking about why this swimmer was punished for something she cannot help. Her suit was given to her by her school. The suits are meant to be worn tight. And her body is just a body. The flesh on the butt is the same as it is on the thigh and back. The only thing that makes that flesh “sexual” or “obscene” is our cultural objectification of the area and the fact that we objectify women’s body parts while also shaming them for having them.
There was a time when women couldn’t expose their ankles because that was too “sexy.” We don’t care if women expose them now. We changed. And we can change this by one simple thing: Stop looking at women, no matter their age, as sex objects! Stop parsing out pieces of the female body as the loci of male sexual pleasure while disregarding the whole woman. Stop defining a woman’s value, rightfulness, goodness, appropriateness…essentially her humanity, based on what her body makes *you* think about.
This is true for men. It’s true for women. It’s true for parents. It’s true for teachers, cops, sports officials, directors, photographers, pretty much everyone. We must stand against clothing discrimination in all forms, even if the clothing makes you personally uncomfortable. Because this issue is not about one high school girl and how the swim suit fit her body. It’s about the fact that seeing a few inches of her bottom mattered more than the fact that she is a powerful, athletic, human being who won her race.