Beauty Redefined Blog

This Post is About Volleyball Shorts.

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Here’s a fun game:

volleyball acd sports

Images from acdsports.com

1. Google Image search your local school’s men’s volleyball team.

2. Now Google Image search the women’s volleyball team.

3. Now ask yourself why the guys are drowning in all that extra fabric!?

We’re concerned about the men here. All that extra shorts baggage has got to be keeping them from playing at peak performance levels! If they were wearing spandex with a 1″ inseam, they’d be able to bend and stretch in much more liberating ways. Who is the athletic shorts lobby that is enforcing such oppressive ideals on these male athletes?

But seriously. In a world where dress codes are strictly enforced against girls at school and leggings are hotly debated for their modesty or lack thereof, every volleyball-playing school and organization in the country sets some clear rules to distinguish female volleyball players from the male ones: Guys, you get shorts. Girls, no shorts for you. We want you to question that. 

This post is about volleyball uniforms. But it’s really about so much more than volleyball uniforms. The arbitrary difference between male and female volleyball attire is just one of many gendered issues that look very normal in our everyday lives to the point of being unquestioned. Just think about all the products women are pummeled with every day that men are never (or *very* rarely) asked to buy just to look “normal” or “feel confident.” Pore-minimizing creams; anti-aging solutions; breast, butt, and lip implants; lash-lengthening potions; all-over hair removal procedures; stretch mark and cellulite creams; scar minimizing solutions; etc. Think about all the men you get to see on TV, movies and in the music industry that don’t fit any sort of beauty ideals, but are valuable and loved and in starring roles anyway, while women are too often relegated to decorating the background. Think about local and national broadcast news, where men get to sport their grey hair and wrinkles while women get fired for aging. Consider how few girls and women are featured in G-rated kids movies, where male characters outnumber females 3:1 (in group scenes it’s 5:1!), female characters wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as those in R-rated movies (thanks to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media for this info).

Men’s and women’s basketball players have fairly similar uniforms, as do athletes in softball/baseball, soccer, lacrosse, rugby, etc. In tennis, women have to wear skirts, which is an odd distinction. In gymnastics, dance, and cheer, we definitely see female athletes required to wear much less clothing than males in the same sports. The argument that gets the most play for this seems to be, “Women need to have a lot of give in their uniforms for doing high kicks and splits.” But it doesn’t change the fact that there are lots of things to wear to do kicks and splits and guys would never be required to wear that to do the same job. Athletes in all levels of karate, MMA, and kickboxing  do a lot of kicking, and they get pants! But never is the disparity greater between what we expect boys/men to wear versus what we expect girls/women to wear than on volleyball teams. And don’t even get us started on beach volleyball. Really, don’t. It’s too much.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying or feeling great in the standard volleyball uniform worn by female athletes today. Nowhere in this post or anything else we’ve ever said or written will you find us shaming or judging the people who agree to wear or love to wear those uniforms (or anything else, to be honest). Our problem with the uniforms comes with 1) the striking disparity between male/female uniforms, which reflects the objectifying idea that women’s bodies are primarily ornaments to be looked at; and 2) the hindering effect that unnecessarily body-baring clothing has on body image and athletic performance (i.e., self-objectification). 

Check out our "mirror mantra" decals by clicking the image.

Check out our “mirror mantra” decals by clicking the image.

Here’s the thing: Beginning at puberty, girls are TWICE as likely to experience depression as boys. This is directly associated with our objectifying culture, which leads girls and women to evaluate and control their bodies in terms of their sexual desirability more than anything else. Girls and women are picturing what they look like to others while they are living instead of just living. Serious mental capacity is lost in the process of focusing on your appearance when you should be focusing on anything else. But one bright spark in this dim world of body fixation is participation in sports! Participating in competitive sports is an excellent way for girls and women to resist the soul-sucking self-consciousness that they are often plagued with. However, the awesome body image benefits are limited to non-aesthetically-focused activites (like competitive team sports, rather than activities that rely in any way on how you look while participating). For us, volleyball is straddling the line between what constitutes a sport that supports positive body image and one that can hurt it for some.

We highly and regularly recommend getting involved in physical activities to beat body shame and experience your body as an instrument instead of an ornament. We sing the praises of basketball, soccer, softball, swimming, rugby, track, etc., but don’t feel like we can offer up volleyball as a similarly great option. This is not because volleyball is in any way aesthetically focused, but because the body-baring outfits can be such a problem for girls and women who are already predisposed to being fixated on their appearances. Our cultural beauty ideals for female thighs and behinds are brutal and achievable for so few, which leaves most girls and women feeling self-conscious of some aspect — tan but not too dark, no dimples, cellulite, stretch marks, smooth skin, shapely but not TOO shapely, and the list goes on. If you are prone to feeling shame and preoccupation with your body — especially your legs and behind — those spandex volleyball shorts with little-to-no inseam that are generally hiked up to *just* below the backside will likely prevent you from being able to take your mind off the appearance of your body to fully experience the positive effects of the sport. Interesting research backs this up:

  • excercise white backgroundPrichard and Tiggemann (2005) found that women in fitness centers who wore tight and fitted exercise clothing placed greater emphasis on their appearance attributes and engaged in more habitual body monitoring than women who wore looser clothing (T-shirts and sweatpants).
  • Strelan and colleagues (2003) found that the attention focused on women’s bodies in fitness centers (like mirrors surrounding them in gym classes) leads women to self-objectify more.
  • Fredrickson and colleagues (1998) had women try on a swimsuit or a sweater in front of a mirror – alone – and then complete various tests. Swimsuit-wearing women expressed more body shame and performed worse on a math test than did sweater-wearing women.
  • As a follow-up, Fredrickson and Harrison (2005) explored these effects on athletic performance, and found that girls experiencing higher levels of self-consciousness performed worse than girls with lower levels, regardless of their actual athletic experience.

We wonder if a less body-baring uniform would promote a higher level of performance among female athletes, especially considering the high percentage who likely struggle with body anxiety on or off the court.

We wonder if a less body-baring uniform would put female and male athletes on a more equal playing field (or court), because the same sport shouldn’t require significantly different uniforms.

We wonder if a less body-baring uniform standard could encourage more girls and women to play volleyball, considering many might count themselves out specifically because of the uniform.

Are you involved in any way with a volleyball club or team, whether in administration, coaching, playing, parenting or cheering? If so, we encourage you to consider our questions above and pose them to others with influence*. Consider why there is such a disparity between the men’s and women’s uniforms and if that disparity is necessary. Consider if it might be limiting the athleticism of the players, and if minimizing the disparity between the male and female uniforms is a possibility. What would happen if just one club or team of any age group or ranking were to push back against the uniform standard by wearing modified attire, whether or not it conflicted with rules set by the sport’s governing body? Whether they believed their performance might be hindered by self-objectification that is exacerbated by the standard uniforms, or they wanted to open the sport up to others who might be uncomfortable with the short shorts, what if they made a change? Could it be worth the risk? We think so.

When we work to think of our bodies as instruments to be used for our benefit rather than ornaments to be admired by others, we start to question the norms and habits that serve only ornamental purposes. We would love to see girls’ and women’s volleyball uniforms serving a more instrumental role and less of an ornamental one.  

*Current uniforms are obviously a deeply ingrained norm in the sport, so we are happy to discuss our research with members of governing bodies who determine standards for volleyball uniforms.

Want more in-depth help to reframe  your health perceptions and improve your body image? Check out our 8-Week Body Image Resilience Programdeveloped and tested through our Ph.D. dissertations. See dozens of other people’s thoughts on this discussion on our Facebook page here

 

  1. Dorothy
    Dorothy11-03-2015

    Wow. I had no idea! Way, way, way back when I played field hockey, I don’t think spandex had been invented! Seriously though, this is awful. Women and girls deserve better. The man looks cool and comfortable. The woman does not.

  2. Ma Kettle
    Ma Kettle11-03-2015

    No, Women. The men are covering the junk in their…um…trunk. You put men in shorts with a one-inch in-seam and the crowd will all turn red, and the tv cameras will have to censor.

    Find something really important to gripe about.

    • April
      April11-03-2015

      Ma Kettle: Because camel toe, wedgies, butts that are too big for those shorts, and visible menstrual pads are never something girls worry about.

      Did you even read the essay?

    • BR Admin
      BR Admin11-03-2015

      Ma Kettle, the men just have oh so much junk in their “trunk” to have to wear basketball shorts to make sure it’s all covered. Totally! This post is about volleyball shorts and SO much more than volleyball shorts. Hopefully you can get some of the important meaning out of it.

    • Chloe
      Chloe12-07-2015

      You know men used to wear short shorts way back in the day for sports right? Like way back in the 1950s. And in the 70s and 80s men wore them in their regular clothes (I know, because I have horrible pictures of my dad wearing them). Apparently women dug that look on a man back then, but (thankfully) we no longer do. You could say it’s just as restrictive of men to wear baggy shorts when playing a sport that require movement and dexterity. Women likely laugh at a man who wears spandex shorts for biking or running, yet seem to have no problem ogling the butts of football or baseball players in their tight uniforms. I don’t know why female volleyball teams have for a long time worn short shorts, my guess is that both male and female teams did back in the day, then men changed because baggy long shorts went in style for men. It’s not like female soccer players have this difference for any other sport (except for swimming- oh no! They actually wear more clothes then!). Despite many women liking an Olympic swimmer’s body, I don’t see many here in the US wishing that more men would go to the beach in a speedo even if he had that body. Everyone experiences physical attraction, it just happens to be the case that men and women have different ideas about what is sexually attractive in the other. Men happen to like more skin shown (because they think the entire female body is beautiful) and women tend to like less skin shown (because they don’t think a protruding yet flaccid package is particularly sexy).

  3. sisterlilbunnythecorpseflinger
    sisterlilbunnythecorpseflinger11-03-2015

    Not gonna lie, it’s one of the reasons I dropped out of volley ball when I got to high school. I wasn’t very good anyhow so it’s not like I missed much but the shorts were a massive nope.

  4. Laura
    Laura11-03-2015

    I made it on the high school team but ended up dropping out and doing soccer instead, BECAUSE of the spandex. 1. It was uncomfortable and made me feel self conscious. 2. I felt that it was sexist to require anyone to wear clothing like that. I switched for comfort reasons and as a statement against the requirement. So yes, I completely agree with you. I never understood why wedgies were better than extra fabric.

  5. Lisa
    Lisa11-05-2015

    I literally just had this conversation at the gym on Tuesday. My theory is that to get the men to watch, you gotta show skin. “The women’s athletics are just not interesting to watch, otherwise. ” They are not as strong, or fast, or jump as high, or hit as hard therefore it is boring to watch, unless they can see something more. This is just my theory after talking with some men/boys. This is not what I believe.
    I do not agree that women’s soccer wears the same as the men, though the difference isn’t as dramatic. But the girls on my team, even when given longer shorts, to mid thigh, would roll the waistband until the shorts were nearly “Daisy Dukes”. I have also seen this on all of the local women’s college games.

  6. Alissa
    Alissa11-15-2015

    My daughter plays u15 volleyball. She consistently asks me to buy the longest inseam shorts I can find. I do. We have never been given crap from any coaches/teammates. Why? Because it’s a non-issue. The shorter shorts have never been a requirement, only a preference from the girls.

  7. Kiss & Make-up
    Kiss & Make-up11-23-2015

    It’s true, there is such a difference between men and women when it comes to (professional) sports and work-out gear! And why, really? We all just ‘accept it’ because it’s never been any different, but this really made me take a moment to really *think* about it.

  8. MJ
    MJ01-04-2016

    I think the reason why women wear the smallest shorts possible in volleyball is to be more attractive to men

    • Dorothy
      Dorothy01-04-2016

      Oh my God no! The whole point is that women want to play sports WITHOUT body issues / sexuality issues. They want to FOCUS on the GAME.

  9. Katie
    Katie06-09-2016

    Thank you for this article. I had never noticed the difference between men’s and women’s volleyball uniforms, mostly because I don’t know anything about volleyball. But the fact that the less clothing worn, the more women (and girls!!) self-objectify is, frankly, frightening.

    Thank you for bringing this to light.

  10. Old Fashioned Mom
    Old Fashioned Mom08-10-2016

    This article says everything I just fumbled through in an email to my daughter’s high school principle. She’s 15, has curves and really loves herself but as a mom I don’t think she needs to show a gym full of strangers all of herself. She couldn’t wear those shorts to school! She can’t even wear those shorts to warm up! But when the game starts they strip to their underwear just to play? Um, nope. This started as a fashion trend and turned into a “requirement” cause most athletes are trim and fit and the ones who aren’t should be shamed out of the sport. We are a small country school. None of these girls should be in these shorts and none of these old farmers need to see them in them.

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