A controversy about women’s boxing, ahead of this summer’s Olympics, illustrates deeper problems with sexism in sport and society.

Women boxers

London’s Olympic Games will showcase, for the first time, a sport that many people would prefer didn’t exist: women’s boxing.

Rather than being afforded the respect and equality they deserve, women boxers have been told they may be obliged to wear skirts in the ring. This sexist proposal is on the table because, apparently, spectators may have trouble differentiating between male and female boxers.

“I won’t be wearing a mini-skirt. I don’t even wear mini-skirts on a night out, so I definitely won’t be wearing one in the ring.”
Ireland’s three-time world champion Katie Taylor.

The Amateur International Boxing Association has said that skirts will help make female boxers look more ‘elegant.’ Since when was boxing about elegance? It is highly skilful and sometimes beautiful, but never pretty.

My argument is not with skirts as such. Anyone who follows boxing will know that ring fashion is often as much of a spectacle as the fights themselves – and it is right that people have the freedom to express themselves through their clothes.

Quite a few male boxers are partial to wearing skirts – from kilts to skirts made of strips of material that emulate a gladiator’s costume. Boxing legend Jack Johnson used to compete in bright pink shorts and shorts with flowers on – partly to challenge his racist detractors who thought he should be cowed and subservient.

But all of these male athletes chose their clothes: they got to choose between shorts or skirts. Women should not be forced to wear something they don’t want to wear; they must not be denied the chance to celebrate their athleticism as they wish.

Quite simply, the Amateur International Boxing Association is wasting its time trying to threat out of women fighters. Women boxers are tough and they are supposed to be tough. They have overcome not only the trials and perils of boxing training and the fights themselves but also the burden of sexism that exists in some boxing gyms and across society.

Some women love fighting. There is nothing inherently male about wanting to pull on a pair of stinking sweat-soaked gloves and go at it in a ring.

As for the way women look whilst they are doing sport – who cares! They are there to compete. Heaven forbid that a woman ‘looks like a man’ in the process (or maybe it is men who actually resemble women – why assume that a fully developed athletic body is the preserve of men rather than women?)

This refusal to take women’s sports seriously has an impact on sports. When the Australian government funded research into women’s sports coverage, it found that in that sports-mad nation, coverage of women made up just 9% of all sports coverage.

This is probably partly due to the sexist fact that coverage of female sports depends on female teams or athletes winning in competitions whereas men only have to take part to make the news. Though obviously the vast majority of female sports victories are not covered either.

This lack of coverage directly impacts on women’s sport because it limits if not eliminates sponsorship opportunities, which in turn restrict career and training opportunities. This hampers the development women in sports which can again limit the coverage – and so the cycle continues.

This leads some people to argue that ‘sexing up’ women’s sport is the answer. It is no wonder that female athletes often rely on their sexuality and clothing choices to get their athletic achievements covered. This is famously the case with tennis, where the fashion worn by female players frequently ends up in the papers both on the lifestyle pages and (ridiculously) also on the sports pages.

But all this short-sighted approach achieves is a shift away from female athleticism and back to women as pin-ups, fashion icons and sex objects. It also sends a message loud and clear to young up-and-coming female athletes that sexiness rather than athleticism is ultimately valued in women.

Women’s sport needs to be taken seriously and properly funded to bring an end to such sexism. Volleyball and basketball have already had their uniforms tightened and shrunk – this must not spread to boxing. The fighting sports are already riddled with old-fashioned sexism. Despite the support of most male fighters and trainers, female fighters still have to deal with the sexism of parades of ‘ring girls’ in bikinis at competitions and with being barred from competing in the top stadia in Thailand.

In addition, we should not accept this extraordinarily narrow view of ‘sexy’. Whilst I’m not against women being able to express their sexuality in the style of Jessica Rabbit, this is only one sexual identity. It is damaging for society to limit itself to a single stereotype.

Finally, women must be allowed to be athletic and sexy at the same time. Who decreed that being female means being ‘feminine’? To tell women they are not sexy if they are muscular or athletic is a continuation of trying to stop women being powerful athletes on an equal basis with men – to punish them for their incredible achievements and for daring to break out of social norms.

I was in favour of using the boxing ring to decide this question – getting members of the Olympic Committee to go ten rounds in the ring with the world’s top female fighters, and decreeing that whoever wins will have to wear skirts to work. But when I thought this through, I realised it would not be fair on the Olympic Committee members – they’d be counted out within round one.

Perhaps then they had better accept who they are dealing with. Women boxers have finally been let in to the Olympics – now treat them with respect.

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