The men's and women's U.S. Olympic gymnastic teams started to come together this week and one was left lamenting the sport's styling rituals. They make the young women look like pre-pubescents and the young men like the sort of mystery dates who think a teddy bear with a bow around its neck is romantic.
The young women performed feats of daring on the balance beam with their hair pulled up high into perky ponytails and held in place with red, white and blue scrunchies and more metal barrettes than one could find in the hair care aisle of CVS. There is a need, of course, for these young athletes to keep their hair out of their line of vision, but the sight of all of those bright, matching scrunchies calls to mind an elementary school class picture in which all of the girls helped each other get ready in the bathroom.
Their style is a disconcerting juxtaposition of innocent ponytails, showgirl eyes and muscular, fire-hydrant bodies. It is a look that only adds to the creepiness of a sport in which burly coaches -- both male and female -- are waiting with a hug to console contestants after a mishap on the balance beam or floor exercise. One can only imagine Phil Jackson giving Shaq a big hug after each missed free throw.
These are young women -- teenagers mostly -- but they are made to look even younger and more vulnerable than they are. It is always disturbing to see a young girl dressing too old. A 13-year-old done up in red lipstick, eyeliner and too much rouge makes one want to call child protective services because somewhere, something must have gone awry. But the sight of someone styled to look younger and more childlike is just as distressing. When those Courtneys and Carlys struck their poses, backs arched into a perfect, seemingly spineless C, they looked as if they were putting on a performance at a junior miss pageant.
There are other sports in which teenage girls reign -- ice skating, tennis -- but only in gymnastics does the attire have a stunting effect. Some might argue that ever since designers such as Vera Wang and Christian Lacroix got involved in ice-skating costumes, the performer-athletes have been transformed into sexpots. They are a long way from that, but the clothes and the hair do at least acknowledge that they are young women and not toddlers. The newest darling in tennis, Maria Sharapova, 17, certainly looks her age in her sleek tennis dress. Sharapova, whose looks are as stunning as her athletic skills, also appears to be incapable of taking a bad picture.
Both the men and the women in gymnastics wear some of the most unattractive uniforms in modern athletics. Their red, white and blue spandex costumes make them all look as though they should be twirling fiery batons at the head of a Fourth of July parade.
Some of the women's uniforms include a leotard with white flames shooting up around the torso, making the wearer look as though she might self-immolate if she muffs a back flip. Other female athletes wear leotards with white stripes climbing up the arms or cutting across them on the diagonal. With so much attention given to aesthetics -- how else to account for the competition-day makeup -- it's reasonable to think that the uniforms would have a cut that is more flattering to athletic legs. But even Cindy Crawford's figure would suffer in these outfits.
The men, poor souls, must contend with stirrup pants. Even though apparel technology has advanced to the point that clothes can deflect dirt, repel water and block harmful ultraviolet rays, the men do not benefit from the many design options that would make stirrups unnecessary. Instead, these young men with Popeye arms and the upper-body strength of a John Deere tractor are relegated to trousers that look like they should have a back flap and a picture of Peter Rabbit on them.
These athletes who can swing from rings, back-flip out of a vault and spin around the parallel bars seem to defy gravity. Their athleticism is breathtaking. It's the puerile aesthetics that leave one speechless.