At first glance, the world of elite-level figure skating has it all. Mixing performance with athleticism, the unique sport appeals to all audiences, and is always a crown favourite during the Winter Olympic games, regardless of type. Whether it is the short program, the long program, duos, or singles, thousands upon thousands of people gather to watch these athletes perform their graceful sport. Not only that, but the costumes and appearances of performers draw people in, and are remarked on for days after the performance. In fact, many watch figure skating in order to see the beautiful craftsmanship involved in the creation of the athletes’ costumes. Elite-level skating costumes cost between five hundred and five thousand dollars, and so it makes sense that they are so captivating (Thorpe, 2018). On the elite level, makeup and hair are even applied professionally (unlike dance, a similar sport), and this is especially true of Olympic level figure skating, which is broadcast to millions during the Winter Games, on repeat.
The aesthetic aspect of figure skating is perhaps the most interesting to analyse. It certainly draws the most attention, with dozens of articles written about the “worst costumes ever” and the “best costumes ever” and so forth (Murphy, 2014 & Ejiofor, 2018). Even though figure skating is a sport in every sense of the world, all of the emphasis is continually placed on its aesthetics, as opposed to its mechanics.
So why, exactly, is that? What differs figure skating from speed skating or ice hockey? All three are on ice. All three require a mastery of techniques and manoeuvres. All three have far more similarities than differences and yet are talked about completely differently. While you might hear about a hockey player’s muscle or technique, we really only talk about the “skimpy little outfits” of figure skaters (Murphy, 2014).
It’s because, in almost every aspect of the sport, figure skating is considered a girly form of athletics—much like dance and rhythmic gymnastics. We talk about the grace and flow of figure skaters, not about their muscle and core strength. Time and time again, figure skating is framed as an art performance rather than an athletic sport—even though it is very much a part of the highest form of mega-sport: the Olympic games.
I, myself, as an ex-figure skater, was constantly told that it was a “girl’s sport”, meaning that it was not considered a real one. Hours of gruelling training went into it, and I had more muscle in my ankles and feet than more people do in their entire body, and yet it was still invalid—only because it supposedly belongs to girls.
Before I talk about the consequences of this narrative frame, I want to talk about the history of figure skating—mostly because of the irony. I don’t want to delve too far, because the history is long enough to be a separate blog entry entirely. So, here is the short and sweet version.
Figure skating, was, in origin, a male-dominated sport. It originated in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and was a way for upper-class men to display their elegance and grace—and thus find them suitable women to woo. This form of figure skating was a little choppier than the one we know today, but still had many of the same basic concepts (Adams, 2010, p. 241). But, as time passed and women began to involve themselves in the sport (helping to refine it mostly), the sport reversed its gender balance. By the end of World War II, it was considered a female sport entirely (Adams, 2007, p. 872).
Okay, but what does that mean for us now? Well, it basically just frames the way figure skating is narrated in media. Even at the most elite level of figure skating, the feminine aspects are all that is emphasized, as that is congruent with the feminized sport. In most cases, this feminization occurs through how the costume donned by the athlete is portrayed. It should just be a piece of lycra or spandex that does nothing except help the athlete move, theoretically. But, once media becomes involves, the costume becomes a work of art on its own. Figure skaters who are not involved in media (non-competitive figure skaters, or those are low levels), like I was, are often found in plain leotards that are simply utilitarian. But, once media is involved, the outfit becomes a tool upon which the gender norms and expectations for females are directly cast. The outfits are often referred to as skimpy or scandalous, and this narrative works to slut-shame athletes, emphasizing (indirectly) the need for extreme femininity in the sport. It doesn’t even matter that there are rules that stop costumes from being quote-unquote skimpy, on an elite level: there are perceptions that simply won’t go away (Ryan, 2018).
In that lies a part of the problem: the focus on costumes means that all the meanings and interpretations of what female athleticism involves get placed on an item of clothing that the athlete is wearing. These costumes begin to hold a very charged meaning, as they, in media, become direct representations of the females themselves. The athletes are no more than the cloth on their back, quite literally. So, we end up with a very specific media representation of figure skating, and it is one that only enforces the gendering and feminization of figure skating.
This isn’t just limited to the flashiness of the costumes, either. It has to do with the boundaries and barriers within them, too. Slut-shaming and judging is a direct result of the focus on costumes. As noted by Rand in her novel Red Nails, Black Skates: Gender, Cash, and Pleasure on and off the Ice, there is a certain mindset involved with figure skating. Rand says that in “dance and dance-related physical activities [such as figure skating,] the ability to draw an approved line between sexiness and skank often marks the difference between insider and outsider (Rand, 2012, p. 104). These costumes become status symbols upon which all images of what it means to “be a woman” are projected. Suddenly, figure skaters’ bodies are not just scrutinized for their athletic ability, but also objectified in a sexual manner.
Understandably, the media latches onto that (as media tends to do). The result is a cycle in which so many of the technicalities behind the sport focus on the aesthetics. For example, in the 1994 U.S. Nationals, figure skater Tonya Harding was questioned about “being downgraded for a costume” (Rand, 2012, p. 105). She replies that there was “nothing showing”, followed with “Too risqué? Come on. Look at what the girls [the figure skaters] are wearing” (Rand, 2012, p. 105).
Here comes the age-old question: Why do I care?
Well, you care because you should. Sexism through the feminization of certain sports is still a prevalent issue. As noted by Heywood in her article Stealth Feminism, the balance between female and male athletes in the Olympics is still very much…unbalanced. At the time of her piece, only 36 percent of athletes in the Olympics were female (Heywood, 2003, p. 25). Sure, this is up from the 1992 Olympics’ 30 percent, but it’s still nowhere near even (Heywood, 2003, p. 25).
Not only that, but the coverage that this below-equal number of female is still so incredibly feminized! Coverage on them “emphasized female competitors as women first”, and “athletes second” (Heywood, 2003, p. 26). Even when women are the centre of attention, it is not their athleticism that is talked about them—but everything that makes them distinctly female.
Rather brilliantly, this creates a cycle that is perfect both for the economy and for sports media alike. The focus on the hyperfemininity of female athletes in figure skating creates the perfect opportunity to be taken advantage of. I remember, as a young child doing fairly high-level figure skating, not feeling like a real figure skater until I was awarded my first costume—a bright green, sequined mess of lycra that was so itchy it hurt. Once I wore it, though, I was a real athlete. Or at least, a real athlete as defined by the media and the focus on females’ appearance in figure skating.
This media coverage fuels the entire sports economy, as it completely controls the public’s conscious (Corrigan, p.43). Young girls feel as if they are not true athletes until they wear their fancy dresses and express hyperfemininity. This leads to them purchasing expensive costumes and portraying themselves in exactly this way, which the media covers, only to repeat the cycle. Athletes and spectators alike are drawn into a cycle of wealth and power, that is entirely controlled by an economy of hyperfemininity.
I can’t propose a magical solution that will fix it all. But, I can talk about what I know. As I mentioned several times, I was a figure skater all throughout my childhood and teenage years. What was unique about my figure skating experience, though, is that I was not a competitive figure skater in the least—because my family genuinely could not afford the cost of competition and costumes. Instead, I only performed at shows and other venues that did not judge me on anything other than my art. I grew an appreciation for the sport without being dazzled by the glitz and glamour.
The athleticism and the art took priority over the costumes, and for that I am grateful—and it is definitely something I would recommend every young athlete try at least once.
Adams, M. L. (2007). The manly history of a ‘girls sport’: Gender, class and the development of nineteenth-century figure skating. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 24(7), 872-893. doi:10.1080/09523360701311752
Adams, M. L. (2010). From Mixed-Sex Sport to Sport for Girls: The Feminization of Figure Skating. Sport in History, 30(2), 218-241. doi:10.1080/17460263.2010.481208
Adhav, L. (2018, February 13). 35 of the Best Olympic Figure Skating Outfits of All Time. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/fashion/g3769/olympic-skating-costumes/
Corrigan, T. F. (n.d.). The Political Economy of Sports and New Media. Routledge Handbook of Sport and New Media. doi:10.4324/9780203114711.ch4
Ejiofor, A. (2018, February 15). You Will Love These Figure Skating Costumes From PyeongChang. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2018/02/15/figure-skating-costumes-olympics-2018_a_23362795/
Heywood, L. & Dworkin, S.L. (2003). Sport and the Stealth Feminism of the Third Wave. In, Built to Win: The Female athlete as cultural icon (pp.56-85). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Nurwisah, R. (2018, February 12). Good Or Bad Figure Skating Costumes Can Make All The Difference. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2018/02/11/good-or-bad-figure-skating-costumes-can-make-all-the-difference-at-the-olympics_a_23358651/
Rand, E. (2012). Red nails, black skates: Gender, cash, and pleasure on and off the ice. Durham: Duke University Press.
Ryan@lisarya, L. (2018, February 14). Everything to Know About Olympic Figure-Skating Costumes. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.thecut.com/2018/02/olympics-figure-skating-costumes.html
Ryerson, L. (2018, February 13). The 30 most risqué figure skating costumes of all time. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from http://www.thisisinsider.com/figure-skating-dresses-controversy-2018-2
Thorpe, J. (2018, March 20). This Is How Much Money It Can Cost To Become An Olympic Figure Skater. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.bustle.com/p/how-much-does-it-cost-to-become-olympic-figure-skater-its-expensive-to-get-into-the-sport-8146666
Torgerson, R. (2018, January 18). 19 Fascinating Things You Didn’t Know About Figure Skating Costumes. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.cosmopolitan.com/style-beauty/fashion/a19764/ice-skating-costume-facts/
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