OPINION: Female athletes are more than just a uniform

a volleyball on a court
Female athletes deserve to be taken seriously for their skills, writes Annika Reff PO ’25. (Courtesy: janoazs/Pixabay)

“Come for the spandex, stay for the game,” read the flyers put up for our varsity volleyball games in my freshman year of high school. My captains decided we should encourage people to come to the game in any way we could because “we need a lot of fans for the playoffs.”

For years, I faced comments from my male classmates downgrading the seriousness and importance of volleyball. But my captains took a different approach — they embraced the male perception of our sport. 

And, shockingly, it worked. Boys came to our first volleyball games for what I could only imagine was the purpose of looking at our uniform and gradually developed an interest in volleyball itself. Boys who had only talked to me about how I looked on the court soon started talking about our defense, asking about our plays and strategy. As a 14-year-old, I was happy that they seemed to care about our actual performance more than before; it felt like we had proven ourselves as athletes. But this is where the problem lies: the feeling that female athletes, especially young girls, need to prove that their sport is worthy of male spectatorship. 

My freshman year on varsity drew the biggest crowds our team had ever had through this method of marketing. We even filled the bleachers more than men’s basketball. The next year, our athletic director cracked down. She ordered longer spandex, basically biker shorts, and forbade us from leaving the gym in our shorts, or even walking back to our cars after a game. Why? It was “inappropriate.” 

Kylie Mies PO ’25, a setter on the Pomona-Pitzer volleyball team, echoed a similar sentiment during my interview with her: “I was always nervous to wear my uniform outside of the gym because I felt like people were watching me with spandex on, so I would bring sweatpants with me wherever I went.” She tells of an incident that happened to her after volleyball practice when she was younger. “I forgot my sweatpants and walked into a store with just spandex on. Later on this girl came up to me and told me a man was taking photos of me. I was only 13 years old and the man was a grown adult. It really freaked me out.” 

All of this –– being made to feel shame by adults because my uniform is supposedly inappropriate and distracting, and being told by my male peers that my sport isn’t worthy of attention in itself –– led me to question myself. I had been playing club volleyball since fourth grade, and I had never encountered any doubts about the legitimacy of my sport or the appropriateness of my uniform. The club world made me feel safe. I liked that the only spectators were coaches, parents and other players. It felt like a bubble in which only volleyball mattered, and it was treated with the utmost seriousness.

Going back and forth from club, where my team competed at the highest level in the Junior Olympics, to high school volleyball, where the focus suddenly became about our uniform and our looks, made volleyball feel performative.

Mies had a similar experience: “I feel like in volleyball, a lot of men like to talk about our uniform. To me, these comments take away the talents and the athleticism of the sport. Sometimes I feel like we are noticed as objects, only because of our bodies.”

So, is there a solution? The approach my athletic director took was only a reaction to the problem — her solution was to change us, our uniforms, not the people objectifying us. This decision put a band-aid on a much deeper problem and only reinforced the notion that our bodies were consumable. Instead, our collective mindset around sports must change. As Mies puts it, “To men, it might seem small when they talk about volleyball in a sexual way but to the athletes that spend so much time and effort on the sport to get good, it’s kind of a punch in the face.”

Campaigns like the iconic 1997 Gatorade commercial featuring Mia Hamm and Michael Jordan, set to the soundtrack of “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” brought this issue to the forefront of public consciousness. In the ad, the two incredibly successful professional athletes go head-to-head in a variety of sports. Yet Jordan shuts down Hamm’s proclamation that she ‘can do anything he can’ with a blunt: “No, you can’t.” The commercial was also remade in 2021 starring athletes Abby Wambach and Usain Bolt.  While the ads can be viewed as progressive since the athletes are portrayed on an equal level, it is notable that in both commercials, Jordan and Bolt push back against their female counterparts–– “No, you can’t.” 

Since the passage of Title IX in 1972, mainstream culture has moved in a direction that more widely celebrates female athletes. The next step, however, is removing the layer of objectification and sexualization many female athletes, and especially young girls, still face. 

In other words, please come for the game and stay for the game. Keep our uniforms out of it.

Annika Reff PO ’25 is from Los Angeles, California. She enjoys consuming an unhealthy amount of caffeine and listening to the soothing voice of Michael Barbaro.

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