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Wearing unitards, German gymnasts promote comfort, take stand against sexualization

German gymnasts at the Tokyo Olympics fought uniform status quo by wearing unitards. It's a battle being fought elsewhere, too. (Video: The Washington Post)
3 min

Germany’s female gymnasts stood out from other Tokyo Olympics competitors Sunday during a team qualifying round by wearing unitards, rather than traditional leotards. They first wore the bodysuits in competition during the European championships in April, when the German Gymnastics Federation said the choice of apparel was meant to counteract “sexualization” in the sport.

“We wanted to show that every woman, everybody, should decide what to wear,” Germany’s Elisabeth Seitz said on Friday, after she and teammates wore unitards during a practice session in Tokyo. At that time, the German women weren’t sure what they would wear in Sunday’s competition, but they opted for outfits which they hoped would help them perform in an optimal mental state.

“We girls had a big influence on this,” Germany’s Sarah Voss said Friday. “The coaches were also very much into it. They said they want us to feel the most confident and comfortable in any case. It just makes you feel better and more comfortable.”

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After Sunday’s team qualifying, in which Germany attained “Reserve 1” status by finishing ninth, one spot away from qualifying for Tuesday’s final, Voss told reporters (via the Associated Press), “We sat together today and said, ‘Okay, we want to have a big competition. We want to feel amazing, we want to show everyone that we look amazing.'”

While male gymnasts either wear loosefitting shorts or full-length pants, depending on the discipline in which they are competing, women and girls at many levels of gymnastics have for decades tended to wear leotards cut high up their thighs. Unitards, however, are allowed, as are leggings of the same color as a given leotard. In addition to helping some competitors feel more comfortable, such outfits can be favored by athletes for reasons of cultural and religious modesty.

“We women all want to feel good in our skin,” Voss, 21, said in April (via the BBC). “In the sport of gymnastics it gets harder and harder as you grow out of your child’s body. As a little girl I didn’t see the tight gym outfits as such a big deal. But when puberty began, when my period came, I began feeling increasingly uncomfortable.”

Seitz, 27, wrote on social media in April that wearing the unitards in competition “set an example.”

“The symbol applies to all gymnasts who may feel uncomfortable or even sexualized in normal suits,” Seitz wrote in German. “Because, in our opinion, every gymnast should be able to decide in which type of suit she feels most comfortable — and then do gymnastics with it.”

What to know about gymnastics at the Tokyo Olympics

These are the first Summer Games being staged since the Larry Nassar scandal rocked the world of gymnastics. Nassar, a longtime team doctor for USA Gymnastics, was convicted of sexually abusing scores of girls and young women. Among his victims were a number of Olympians, including American superstar Simone Biles. He was sentenced to prison, effectively for life, in 2018, but countless gymnasts and others around the sport are still dealing with the fallout. Fresh wounds were reopened just before the Olympics began, when an inspector general’s report found that the FBI failed to properly investigate allegations against Nassar.

“A real challenge within the sport context is the power differential between athletes and coaches or trainers — anyone who has authority over athletes such that athletes often feel that they just have to do what they’re told,” Elizabeth Daniels, a University of Colorado psychology professor who has written about the sexualization of female athletes, said to NPR in May. “And so when you pair that with instances of sexual abuse, athletes may not feel like they can question or speak out about something that’s uncomfortable or inappropriate, and then that behavior can persist unquestioned.

“So now where we’re seeing athletes speaking out about uniforms, you know, it really could be symbolic of the need for athletes to have more voice in general in the sport context,” Daniels continued, “which could alleviate some of these really tragic abuse cases that have come to national and international attention more recently.”

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Voss said in April (per the BBC) that while she had not been sexually abused, she and her German teammates saw themselves as role models and wanted to show younger gymnasts and other young women that they had agency.

“I think those are really cool,” Team USA’s Sunisa Lee, 18, said last month of bodysuits. “I like it a lot because people should be able to wear what they feel comfortable in, and it shouldn’t be a leotard if you don’t want to wear it.”

Biles said in June that she prefers leotards because, at 4-foot-8, she feels a unitard might “shorten” her.

“But I stand with their decision to wear whatever they please and whatever makes them feel comfortable,” added Biles, 24. “So if anyone out there wants to wear a unitard or leotard, it’s totally up to you.”

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