Phenomena of netball – Part 1: Gender and Uniform

After a two year hiatus I have returned to netball this summer for a short season. Returning once again to the sport that occupied my childhood and adolescence has brought fresh perspective to some interesting phenomena of netball. Here is the first in a series of three posts.

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Part 1: Gender and Uniform

One of the students I’ve had the pleasure to meet in my ministry this year is Becki – a wonderful pre-service PE teacher, a new follower of Jesus and a very thoughtful feminist. Listening to her talk about sport and women one afternoon my eyes were opened to a distressing trend:

When men wear particular items of clothing to play sport, they often become fashionable. Think converse shoes, baseball caps, football jerseys. However the clothes that women wear to play sport are often determined by fashion. Think hockey uniforms, beach volleyball uniforms. Are women really playing international beach volleyball in skimpy bikinis because it’s comfortable?

This observation is really just the stuff that appears on the surface, the fruit of a whole disturbing culture of sexism in sport. This phenomenon is tied to the reasons we watch sport, the way women’s sport is marketed, the way women are marketed. The only sport where I have seen women celebrated as (semi-)professional athletes, where games are broadcast on television and the players allowed to wear a comfortable uniform is football/soccer. Maybe cricket. In all other sports I can think of the women are either mocked for playing or participating, or they have to wear something ridiculous to be taken seriously.

About a month after this clarifying conversation I turned up at the netball courts for my first game and collected my uniform from my manager.

Oh my goodness.

They had upgraded. You see, as long as I have been playing, we played netball in polo shirts and pleated cotton wraparound skirts. They were a pain to iron, but it was good to wear loose comfortable clothes once a week to run around and get exercise. As I got older, the different clubs in the competition slowly started upgrading their uniforms to match those of the semi-professional trans-Tasman netball league:

 photo NetballThunderbirdBenMcMahoncopy_zpsd42aa15d.jpg  photo NetballswiftsDianneManson_zps22bfb8f7.jpg  photo NetballWaikatoGettyimages_zpse8a4473e.jpg
Photo credits: AAP: Ben Macmahon // AP: Dianne Mason // Getty Images

When I last played two years ago, my club was the very last club still playing in loose fitted cotton. Now we are wearing skin tight synthetic tunics, playing the same game as everyone else. I put it on for the first time and felt like a traitor to myself.

I tried to explain my discomfort to one of my teammates. She didn’t really understand my point.
“But it’s comfortable to play in!”
I gave up. Comfort is a subjective thing anyway so there was no way I could argue against that. I was sad she couldn’t see the important principles at stake – this is about the objectification of women, people! Maybe I need to find a way to introduce her to Becki?

After a few weeks I stopped feeling embarrassed about wearing it and felt comfortable enough to take a picture to use here for this post. I took a few pictures scowling, but in the end I decided to use the one shot where I was smiling instead. Because I look stupid in the other shots. Sadly this whole netball uniform saga has made me realise that, as much as I complain about the particular ways that sport commodifies gender, I am actually playing the game just as much as everyone else. In one way or another I really do care about how I present to others, and I’ve secretly started to enjoy playing in my uniform. I just don’t know what to make of all the inconsistencies within myself.

 photo Netball2013copy_zps53888cb1.jpg

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3 thoughts on “Phenomena of netball – Part 1: Gender and Uniform

    1. Alison Post author

      Fascinating! On a somewhat connect topic from those pictures, I saw A ballet called Bella Figura last year – you can see what the Sydney Morning Herald thought about it here. The dancers – male and female – were all topless and wearing identical, enormous red skirts. The choreography and the costumes worked together really well to challenge ideas of sexualisation and what it means to be naked in performance. It was so uncomfortable, and awesome, and really well done.

      Reply
  1. tibbycat

    Great post. Yeah I was thinking about this the other day when I was watching a bunch of wrestling videos on YouTube. For the male wrestlers it seemed to be a power fantasy of showing who had the biggest muscles and who could slam the other guy into the ground the hardest. Whereas for the most part with the female wrestlers by contrast, the focus seemed to be them as sexual objects for the men in the audience to desire (as opposed to the male wrestlers being someone to admire instead and want to be like). The female wrestlers would slap each other’s arses and act in a very sexualized way that the male wrestlers never did. It was curious.

    That said, your post here has inspired me to want to go back to playing a sport and be fit and healthy again. As soon as I have my septoplasty and recover, then I’m returning to badminton.

    Reply

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