I don't know whether to be more offended by volleyball players covered in a burkini or exposed in bikini

It doesn’t matter what culture you come from, women’s bodies and the way those bodies are dressed is still seen as public property – or, more accurately, the property of the patriarchy

Hannah Smith
Wednesday 10 August 2016 14:02
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Doaa Elghobashy of Egypt and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany compete
Doaa Elghobashy of Egypt and Kira Walkenhorst of Germany compete

If the infamous beach volleyball picture has shown us anything, it’s that no matter what you wear to play sport as a woman, you’ll always be judged by the men watching. You can even be labelled the perfect woman as long as the men judging you are doing so from the same cultural perspective as you.

Wearing a burkini? Well done, you’re modestly covered and proof that sportswear should be functional, not at all revealing. Wearing a bikini? Well done, there you are showing the world what female freedom looks like with your perfect male pleasing figure on show. Go on my son. Get in. Look at that.

It doesn’t matter what culture you come from, women’s bodies and the way those bodies are dressed is still seen as public property, or more accurately the property of the patriarchy.

Rio 2016: Yesterday's Highlights

From the receptionist sent home earlier this year because she wasn’t wearing high heels, even though her male colleagues are not expected to wear uncomfortable footwear, to Venus Williams wearing a skirt that is ‘too short’ for her powerful thighs, to Rio’s pointless bikini versus burkini debate, women’s bodies are anything but their own.

When two competing teams are held up against each other as part of a ‘political debate’ over what they are wearing, that is the moment we must realise how far we still have to go. Is world diplomacy and cultural understanding to be debated via the ‘correct’ volleyball outfit?

If the burkini is the sign of a repressive society, then what is the body shaming reaction of Western society to the body of a woman in a bikini – ‘beach ready’ or not?

Are women in the west free from patriarchal control over their clothing in the West? Ask Helen Skelton, whose legs were deemed far too racy for prime time television, while her male colleague’s legs – exposed in a pair of skimpy shorts - were not only not commented on. In fact, they weren’t even noticed.

Men commenting on what women are wearing in a futile argument over the ‘right’ kind of outfit for a woman’s sporting competition feels nothing but horrifyingly familiar.

As Mrs Lintott says in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, “history is women following behind with the bucket”, but she forgets to mention that they were being told what to wear and how to mop up correctly as they did so.

As Western women, we may think that we have come a long way from the days when we were told to cover our ankles lest men get too excited. We may look at women playing volleyball in their burkinis and think they must be incredibly repressed. That’s missing the point. If you are female, naked or clothed, you are being judged by the men around you in their endless quest to define the perfect woman.

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