Joyce Fegan: Women should be able to wear whatever we want

The fuss about the sportswomen in this photo highlights the damaging nonsense we tell women and girls about their bodies
Joyce Fegan: Women should be able to wear whatever we want

We're criticised for baring a little skin in hot weather — but, just as bizarrely, Norway’s beach handball team was fined because Euro 2021 tournament organisers deemed the kit in this photo as not revealing enough.
Picture: Norway Beach Handball Women

"Wear the damn shorts", reads the pithy quote.

The transition was swift — from 18 months of daily bread and biscuits to having to bare it all in 30 degrees of heat.

Our consumption of the biscuits — a benign enough coping mechanism in the face of seemingly endless uncertainty — had already gotten the shaming treatment.

"Shift that Covid stone?" Sorry, the only thing my weighing scales measures is grammes of flour, and who decided it was a stone anyway?

And just like no one was ready for a pandemic, no one was prepared for a heatwave either, especially not in Ireland where air-conditioning is not your everyday household white good. A bit like how at Christmas the pressure is on to attend every gathering, the heat is on to get out and make the most of the sun, wear the shorts, bare the skin.

The bit we forgot — and thanks to the Norwegian beach handball team for reminding us this week — is that the widespread messaging to women and their bodies is 'be lean, lithe, and light and let us see it'.

But what if you are not lean, lithe, and light, and you're not comfortable wearing the shorts? 

Just because the heat suddenly gets turned up to 30 doesn't mean the above messaging gets turned down as swiftly.

For many, especially those with disordered eating or body image issues, being told to boldly "wear the damn shorts" is about as helpful an instruction as being instructed to "shift that Covid stone". 

Unless you are a member of the Norwegian beach handball team, that is. 

They're embracing shorts for a different reason.

This week, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined €1,500 for refusing to wear bikini bottoms during a game in their Euro 2021 tournament. In protest, the team wore thigh-length shorts during their match against Spain on Sunday, not the regulation bikini-bottom design that female players must wear.

According to International Handball Federation regulations, male players are allowed to play in tank tops and shorts, but women are required to wear midriff-baring tops and bikini bottoms “with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg” and a maximum side width of four inches. (Why give different clothing regulations to different sexes?)

And when the women's team wore shorts they were fined for wearing "improper clothing".

At international level, we instruct women to wear such midriff-baring clothing and financially punish them when they don't.

And, at a local or personal level, we give out about young girls "going around in short shorts", or scoff that others "should really cover up".

When did clothing and bodies get so highly charged?

Whatever about "wearing the damn shorts", it's a case of being damned if we do and damned if we don't.

We'll be judged for the likes of the so-called Covid stone and what clothes look like on us as an apparent result of it and we'll be judged for fitting into the lean, lithe, light international body regulation and "going around in short shorts" with the audacity to have skin on display.

In a world where billionaires travel to space instead of adequately remunerating their workforce, and where companies refuse to take responsibility for their own oil spill, surely a woman enjoying her body, the fresh air on her skin, and wearing whatever she feels best in, shouldn't be the thing that triggers our offence.

It was a coincidence that the Norwegian beach handball players should fall foul of their law for wearing shorts in the same week that so many people were grappling with a heatwave and having no option but to reluctantly "wear the damn shorts".

Strange messaging about bodies and clothing

Hot weather and humidity are triggers for people who experience disordered eating and body image issues. And, due to the pandemic, eating disorders have spiked.

In the US, The National Eating Disorders Association reported a 41% increase in messages to its telephone and online help lines in January 2021 compared with January 2020.

In the UK, reports have found similar. This week a BBC investigation found that the number of young people with eating disorders in England ending up in hospital has risen during the pandemic.

Data obtained from NHS Digital showed the number of under-20s admitted over the past year topped 3,200 — nearly 50% higher than in 2019-20.

"The numbers are so high that hospitals are now warning they are running out of beds to care for these patients," the BBC reports: 

It comes as community services struggle to keep up with demand.

Looking at the wider concept of community, friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, acquaintances, the culture — what if we changed our messaging around bodies, weight, and clothing?

Twin sisters, Lindsay Kite and Lexie Kite are co-authors of the book More Than a Body: Your Body Is an Instrument, Not an Ornament and co-directors of the nonprofit Beauty Redefined, and this week they tackled the beach handball issue.

While pointing out that there was "nothing wrong with enjoying or feeling great" in your clothing of choice, they saw the problem as the disparity between the male and female uniform, "which reflects the objectifying idea that women's bodies are primarily bodies to be looked at". 

"In our objectifying culture, girls and women learn to evaluate and control their bodies in terms of their sexual desirability more than anything else," they wrote: 

Girls and women are picturing what they look like to others while they are living instead of just living (it's called self-objectification).

Look desirable, be desirable, is the long-internalised, long-ingested message. So this new message to "wear the damn shorts" might take some repetition. 

And while the lean, lithe, and light myth might feel awful for an able-bodied woman, imagine how it feels to a person who uses a wheelchair every day, or lives with a health condition?

We must change this lethal messaging about bodies

Thirty degrees of heat will bring your relationship with your body into laser-sharp focus. You find yourself making sudden wardrobe changes, while cursing yourself for how your arms look in that top and how your legs look in those shorts. You then find yourself beating yourself up for not loving your body.

But this isn't an individual game, it's a collective one, it's international messaging gone internal. It's so often up to the individual to change their relationship with,  and thoughts about, their body and food — but it's not. 

Our society needs to change this lethally unhelpful message.

The only message we should be repeating in 30 degrees of heat is to stay hydrated, stay safe, and wear whatever you want.

BodyWhys is the national voluntary organisation supporting people affected by eating disorders. Follow them on Twitter at @bodywhys, click on BodyWhys.ie to visit their website, or you can contact them by email at alex@bodywhys.ie. 

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