Gymnast Sarah Voss just made international headlines — not for her performance, but for what she was wearing.
Voss, from Germany, competed at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships last week in a bodysuit that covered her arms and legs, rather than a traditional leotard. Two of her teammates, Kim Bui and Elisabeth Seitz, competed in similar full-body uniforms Friday.
“We hope gymnasts uncomfortable in the usual outfits will feel emboldened to follow our example,” Voss told a German public broadcast station.
“We women all want to feel good in our skin,” Voss said. “In the sport of gymnastics, it gets harder and harder as you grow out of your child’s body. As a little girl I didn’t see the tight gym outfits as such a big deal. But when puberty began, when my period came, I began feeling increasingly uncomfortable.”
Excellent. I love to see athletes empowered to choose uniforms in which they are most comfortable. Ideally, their clothing stays put and stays out of their way. And Voss’ point about leotards and periods makes an especially compelling case for integrating uniforms that offer more coverage when athletes want them.
Somewhere along the way, though, the bodysuits morphed into a weapon against the sexual abuse that has plagued the sport.
“Germany’s Voss sports full-body suit in stand against sexualisation of gymnasts,” Reuters headlined its piece about Voss and her teammates.
“German gymnasts’ outfits take on sexualisation in sport,” claimed a BBC headline.
Do they, though?
“Voss said that while she had never herself been abused, she and her colleagues were role models for younger athletes and wanted to encourage everyone to stand up for themselves,” the BBC reported.
I mean, she kind of said that.
German public broadcaster ZDF posed the question, “Gymnastics has recently been present in the public primarily with scandals. In America, a team doctor abused young gymnasts. In Germany, a trainer is accused of harassing and overly disciplining her athletes. Do you face these incidents as self-confident gymnasts who don’t put up with anything?”
Voss answered, “These things are shocking. Fortunately, I have never been exposed to such treatment. But we are also role models for younger athletes. So we naturally want to encourage everyone to stand up for themselves in every respect. Especially whenever you feel uncomfortable. We have shown it, now we hope that many will follow our example and always try to feel good about themselves. We want everyone to play this great sport of their own free will and because they enjoy it.”
A tweet from Deutscher Turner-Bund, the German gymnastics federation, shows Voss performing and translates to, “Against sexualization in gymnastics: European Championship gymnasts of the DTB start in Basel in long gymnastics suits. The aim is to present aesthetically — without feeling uncomfortable.”
Sexualization and sexual abuse of female gymnasts are enormous, long-standing, deeply entrenched problems.
But leotards bear exactly none of the blame. Sexual abusers bear exactly all of it.
Former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexual assault after 156 of his victims testified in court. His crimes were enabled and papered over by a whole mess of adults, many of whom rightly lost their jobs in the wake of his long overdue fall. The U.S. Education Department fined Michigan State University $4.5 million in 2019 for failing to adequately respond to sexual assault complaints against Nassar.
Not one single assault during Nassar’s 25-year reign of terror can be pinned on a leotard. He’s a monster who preyed on children and left them forever scarred. The same can be said of any coach who sexually abuses a young athlete and any adult who fails to step in when alerted to the abuse.
So I’m leery of any framing that puts the onus of combating sexualization and sexual abuse on the athletes, particularly on what the athletes wear. I’m leery of any message to girls and women that they really ought to consider covering up, lest they tempt someone to rape them.
From what I’m reading, Voss and her teammates implied no such thing. They feel more comfortable in uniforms that offer more coverage and want other athletes who feel similarly to follow suit. Brilliant.
But it’s important for the media who are covering this significant culture shift to proceed with care and caution.
The pressure of combating sexualization and sexual abuse in gymnastics belongs squarely at the feet — and in the hands, and around the necks and hanging, constantly, over the heads — of the sport’s sexual abusers and their lily-livered enablers.