The German women’s gymnastics team made headlines this summer during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic qualifiers with their attire choice, unitards covering their legs, as the German Gymnastics Federation has branded it against “sexualization.” The team also wore the unitards during their podium training at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre on Thursday after debuting them in April at the European championships in Basel, Switzerland.
The suits, which the team wore in their qualifications at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, cover the legs to the ankle and are in contrast to the high-cut leotards worn by many other female gymnasts at the Olympics. Their outfits are, according to the German Gymnastics Federation, a statement “against sexualization in gymnastics.” Many media outlets and fans have applauded this initiative, but is sexualisation the real reason why female gymnasts wear short leotards? Or is it a performance based preference?
This Olympic cycle’s Code of Points for women’s artistic gymnastics , the rule book that determines how gymnasts will be judged, has stated the following regarding attire requirements: “They must wear a correct sportive non transparent leotard or unitard (one piece leotard with full length legs-hip to ankle), which must be of elegant design. She may wear complete leg coverings of the same colour as that of the leotard; under or on top of the leotard.” The option to wear unitards has always been there, but they aren’t present in most international competitions because until now they simply haven’t been popular enough.
I believe that sexualisation has little to do with short leotards, which have been the norm since the 1930’s, a time where revealing clothing was seen as sinful and often disrespectful. These societal views did not affect gymnastics , mainly because without tight fitted clothes there would have been no gymnastics at all, as it was hard for the gymnast to perform some skills with loose skirts, dresses or pants; especially in asymmetric bars where some skills require thigh grip or at least friction to control the momentum of different swings and landings.
Having exposed legs helped judges too, especially those looking at the execution and artistry of the routines. Judges evaluating these elements have to pay attention to body positioning and alignment, something hard to do with certain kind of clothes.
In the past legless leotards where not desirable but necessary as tailors didn’t have the elastic fitted materials we have today. Times, however, have changed. Legging appeared and evolved to the point where some are completely seamless, comfortable and hug our silhouette like a second skin.
It makes sense that unitards are making a comeback with these fashion advances, and it brings with them more options for gymnasts and make the sport more inclusive. Women and girls with an interest in modest dressing can feel more comfortable participating in the sport whether this is for religious, self-image, or medical reasons.
Once elastic material and sowing techniques allowed for unitards to be effective and comfortable, why did it take so long to see them in international competitions? And why did we only see one country perform in these? The answer, I believe, is quite simple: Short leotards have evolved to be something that characterises a gymnast, there is a tradition and a culture that makes gymnasts be proud of wearing them.
Countless little girls have at some point dreamt of wearing a beautiful sparkly leotard, just because of how aesthetically pleasing they are. Leotards haven’t changed much in many years, and the reason for this is that many can’t see the problem with them. In a sport that combines strength and power with elegance and beauty, leotard is not only a costume, it’s also a symbol.
I believe that it’s safe to say legless leotards are not going anywhere any time soon in the world of gymnastics, and not because of anything to do with sexualisation. It is rather a matter of freedom of moment, good grip, aesthetics and the artistic demands of the sport. The comeback of the unitard offers nevertheless more inclusion, more choices and more control over a gymnast’s own body, something definitely worth celebrating.