Body Shaming, Sexism and Competitive Swimming
October 4, 2019
Recently, 17-year-old Alaska high school swim champion, Breckynn Willis, won a 100-meter freestyle race, something common for the teen. What was uncommon, however, was her immediate disqualification. A referee accused Breckynn of violating the sport’s so-called modesty rules, which outline “appropriate” swimsuit coverage. Despite wearing the same swimsuit as her teammates, the biracial teen was the only one singled out. According to a statement released by the Anchorage School District, Willis “was targeted based solely on how a standard, school-issued uniform happened to fit the shape of her body.”
Willis’s race adds complexity to the situation. Lauren Langford, a swim coach at another school in Anchorage, noted in a blog post she wrote on Medium that officials have acknowledged “that white athletes are baring too much skin as well, yet they’ve never been disqualified for a similar violation.” This body policing promotes an environment that heightens body insecurities among teens and can be especially harmful if curvier teens or young women of color are being targeted. Furthermore, this distracts from the athletic achievements of young female swimmers.
As a water athlete who has spent hundreds of hours in body-hugging swimsuits, which naturally tend to ride up with movement, the idea that anyone—no less a referee—would reduce my effort and athletic achievements to a sexual attention-seeking stunt is demeaning. My internal dialogue before a competition is not, How can I show off my body?, but rather, How can I stay mentally stronger than my competition?
Similar to the spandex and sports bras that female track sprinters wear, the tightness of a swimsuit can mean the difference between first and sixth place, as it reduces drag (the force of air or water, which causes you to move slower). Enforcing a swimsuit code that penalizes fuller-figured teens would require them to purchase larger swimsuits, which could hurt their race times. It can also intensify any body-related insecurities a young athlete has. By sexualizing the teen’s body, Willis was body shamed, and her achievement was erased. While the disqualification was eventually reversed, the harm was done.
Sexualizing female athletes is nothing new. The barrier-breaking tennis champion, Billie Jean King, tweeted in response to the incident: “The constant policing of women’s bodies is offensive, sexist and wrong.” It’s not OK to tell girls and teens that their bodies are “disqualifying,” whether in a swimsuit, leotard, school uniform or anything else they wear.
Judging swimmers based on physical features, including complexion, instead of their ability can promote a culture of body shaming and sexism, with potentially racist undertones. Breckynn Willis’s story offers us a chance to pause and reconsider the framework in which we look at women’s sports and how some young athletes are being held to different standards.