The Reaction to Nike’s Revealing Tennis Dress and Sexism in Cycling

Why we need to keep shouting and shutting it down when we see objectification in sport

At TWC we don’t claim to be tennis experts – we’re just about as likely define the perfect serve as we are to encourage the Factory Media office to Conga down Farringdon’s coffee shop dragstrip. However, we do know a little bit about women’s rights in sports, and we couldn’t help but feel that the controversial Nike tennis dress making headlines was relevant to all women in sport.

The tennis dress was issued to all Nike sponsored female players to wear at Wimbledon. Made from a light, flowing material, its racer back and ‘power pleats’ were meant to allow athletes ‘freedom of movement’ whilst still being attractive. Freedom of movement for an elite athlete is always a plus – but it turned out that in practice it was the dress itself that had too much freedom to move, restricting athletes and resulting in comments such as: “when I was serving, it was coming up, and I felt like the dress was just everywhere”; “it was always going up, so you can see the stomach, everything”; and “I didn’t feel comfortable showing that much.”

Nike called on athletes to send the dress in, to have the slits at the side sewn up ‘in accordance with Wimbledon rules’. In the mean time athletes found themselves fashioning belts to hold the dress down or wearing it as a tank top with cut of capri tights. That’s right – the dress doesn’t look out of place masquerading as a top.

The men didn’t seem to have any issues with the shorts and t-shirts they were playing in – it was only the women who are asked to flash more flesh whilst competing at the highest level.

The dress that sparked the controversy

Aside from Dresses, is Tennis Equal? 

Tennis has long been seen as a sport which offers a fair amount of equality across the genders when compared to others – football, hockey, cycling – at least the key players can make a living as opposed to competing at World Class level whilst fitting training in alongside a job that pays the bills.

Women Out of the World Cup Means Women Can’t Play Football, Apparently 

However – though each of the four Grand Slam tournaments offers equal prize money across the genders, the same is not true of other matches. BBC Sport revealed that Novak Djokovic – who famously said “we’re more popular, pay us more” – won three of the four Grand Slams last year, and 93 per cent of his matches – making £14.5 million via prize money in 2015. Serena Williams, World Number One, also won three of four Grand Slams, and 95 per cent of her matches – but made only £7.3 million.

Huge adverse reactions across social, print and online media meant Djokovic later retracted his comments, saying: “I have tremendous respect for what women in global sport are doing and achieving… They have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through. You know, the hormones and different stuff, we don’t need to go into details.”

So – women – who spend the majority of their training time ‘battling all the hormones and stuff’ deserve less money, and are asked to compete in clothing that asks them to flash significantly more flesh than most would like whilst actually restricting play. On the plus side, all of these injustices have been spoken about widely from a generally united front. Players and athletes speak out, and brands and organisations are making changes. Wimbledon’s prize fund only became equal in 2007.

Representation and Prize Money in Cycling 

It’s rare that we can say ‘cycling is comparatively more equal in its view of gender’ – but in terms of athletes dress, it seems cycling is a whole lot more 21st century savvy than tennis.

Jersey + shorts – can’t say fairer than that

Women wear bib shorts, base layer, jersey – just like the men. That’s not to say there isn’t objectification applied to women’s cycling, which doesn’t seem to touch ‘men’s cycling’ with anywhere near the same frequency.

The most prominent example is the ‘Cyclepassion’ calendar – yet even this dropped its sex appeal in 2016 in favour of a more arty approach “inspired by the future”. The women still weren’t exactly being celebrated for athleticism – but they also didn’t appear to be having orgasms over bike tyres which is always a plus (we all like a good set of tyres, but not that much).

Out with the old…
In with the new and marginally better…

[Brands] have all experienced the wrath of an angry protest from female cyclists who just want to ride their bikes without that being painted with brushstrokes that shout ‘screw me now’

Cyclepassion is not the only example female cyclists being reduced to objects – even if at their own choice. There was that Colnago tweet, those 661 knee pads, and the age old example of Assos and its former marketing images. We’ve winced through team presentation evenings where commentators have brushed aside the technicalities of the team’s impressive new bike, in favour of asking about their make-up artist and matching nail varnish. However – we weren’t alone in wincing at the nail varnish comments, and Colnago, 661 and Assos have all experienced the wrath of an angry protest from female cyclists who just want to ride their bikes without that being painted with brushstrokes that shout ‘screw me now’. Brands have responded too – Colnago deleted and apologised, as did 661, and Assos have completely re-branded.

Much improved: Assos have seen the light

In terms of prize money – female cyclists certainly aren’t making the kind of sums that the female tennis players are attracting. This said, this year we’ve seen some great steps forwards – all the UCI World Championship purses are new equal, and the Tour de Yorkshire this year offered a total of £50,000 – with the women’s one day winner gaining more than the men’s overall victor after three stages. The Prudential Ride London has also boosted the funds to equal the men’s – totaling 100,000 euros and launching a #PedalParity campaign to encourage others to do the same.

Keep Protesting

Women’s cycling is gathering speed, prize funds are growing, coverage is gradually becoming more regular, and sexism is being stamped out almost every time it rears its ugly head.

The tennis dress, too, has gained enough media attention that it’s been made quite clear it’s not ok to dress women down when on court for the male gaze and its viewing pleasure.

Your voice is important – don’t forget to keep shouting.

Progress might be slow, and instances of unacceptable expectations and perceptions of female athletes might continue to pop up from time to time – but we’re certainly making progress.  Though it’s been just a few short years, we’ve come a long way from the leather trousers, heels and token unzipped cycling jersey that was used to portray a female cyclist less than a decade ago.

It’s notable that most of the changes we’ve seen have been driven by the voices of female athletes and fans expressing clearly ‘that’s not ok’. All of our voices are important, your voice is important – don’t forget to keep shouting.


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