(Photo credits: bartandnadia low-cut leg line on Nadia Comaneci's 1976 Olympic leotard; nbcolympics top to bottom, Olympic gold medalists Jordan Weiber in qualifying competition on July 29, 2012—in a pose that demonstrates a leg line that could be cut several inches lower without interfering with movement—and Gabby Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Jordan Weiber and Aly Raisman on July 23, 2012, in modest practice uniforms just prior to the Olympics in London) Modesty and summer sports don't often mix well. A female gymnast I knew from Michigan, USA, abandoned her hobby when she progressed to a gym that prohibited girls from wearing shorts over a leotard, even though allowing the male gymnasts to do so. Photos from last week's warm-up sessions of the USA women's gymnastics team, who went on to win the 2012 Olympic team gold medal and 4 individual medals, show that it is possible for women to move at the highest level of gymnastic performance in thigh-length capris and t-shirts. However, the glamour of skimpier uniforms has encroached into sports that do not require coverage for protection from the cold, and we have ended up with a performance tradition in many summer sports of uniforms that are too small to comfortably stay in place.
The photo of Jordan Weiber's split leap starting from a balance beam (an incredibly difficult skill, if you had not guessed) shows by the crease at the hip the maximum level of leg movement that a gymnastics leotard leg line needs to accommodate. Based on this photo, the leg on the team leotard she is wearing appears to be around 3 inches higher than necessary. [Update: read the comments to see discussion about why a split leap is easy compared to other elite gymnastics skills.] The design purpose of a high-cut leg line is to make the leg appear longer and thus more elegant. This artistic value explains why the high leg line is common. Olympic athletes use every tool at their disposal to influence judging, and this includes leotards that make their legs look longer. Fit issues become critical when the leg is cut away in the hip area, because in order to blend a cut-away hip, the rear and the crotch become too narrow to keep the leotard from slipping and requiring embarrassing re-adjustments. Nadia Comaneci's 1976 Montreal Olympics leotard (top left) illustrates a better leg line fit. It is high enough to allow a total range of leg movement yet low enough to blend into adequate coverage around the rear. Advances in stretch fabrics have contributed to better-fitting leotards that minimize slipping of high leg lines, but I noticed that even the 2012 Team USA gymnasts suffered occasional slipping of leotard leg openings that showed underwear and required re-adjustment after routines. As a former amateur gymnast, I was fascinated by their skills (thanks to excellent online and TV coverage from NBC), but I was also constantly tense on their behalf for the risky coverage of their leotards.
How wonderful it would be if gymnastics uniforms would transition to the same coverage now seen in women's competition swimwear, with legs reaching to mid-thigh, similar to the warm-up uniforms the gymnasts wore in the above photos. Stretch fabrics are advanced enough to accommodate plenty of movement with capri-style legs, and an added benefit to increased coverage might be reduction in injury. Ballet dancers routinely cover their knees and ankles with knitted leg warmers to increase warmth to the joints to help prevent injury. Allowing female gymnasts more coverage would also lessen the gap between what they and their male counterparts wear. Has anyone ever debated why male gymnasts are allowed to wear pants in competition, yet women must scale down to a scant few inches of fabric below the waist? It would only seem fair to permit the female gymnasts to cover up, not only for fit and warmth issues, but also to reduce the risk of portraying these girls as sex symbols well above the covered-up men.
Modesty of leotard leg lines are an issue not only in gymnastics, but also in sports like swimming, dance and cheerleading. Modesty was an issue for me as a girl in swimming and ballet when I was pressured by trainers' decisions to wear things that I considered to be immodest. My practice in sewing alterations for modesty began early when I learned to line my own team-issued swimsuits that were pitifully thin and see-through when wet. The coaches did not seem to care whether girls were embarrassed to wear the team suit selections, a common problem in sports worldwide. Parents should encourage their daughters to stand up for modesty against any sports organization that exercises poor judgment in uniform selection. If influencing modest uniform selection is not effective, then girls should change teams or leave the sport, as necessary. Ballet costumes were more out of my control for alteration, and I discarded ones I hated along with photos of them and eventually transferred to a different studio that selected more modest recital outfits. One helpful hint for modest girls who enjoy ballet is that studios that teach ballet exclusively tend to allow more modest uniforms than studios that teach a range of dance styles.
In these modern times, the balance between dressing modestly and enjoying team sports is delicate. Social tradition has freed women from wearing clothing that interferes with athletic performance, yet some sports have gone too far by sexualizing women's uniforms so that they are more immodest than necessary for movement. The final decision for what to wear when participating in sports rests with each individual and should be based on uncompromised personal standards. Of course, everyone has a different definition of modesty, and any leotard, regardless of the style of leg line or presence of a skirt overlay, would be considered immodest by certain groups, leading them to avoid any sport that requires something other than a dress or culottes for participation. Girls from some of these groups that encourage dresses at all times have been the most physically fit I have ever met, working on family farms in jobs that require strength and stamina, proving that athleticism and tiny outfits are not inseparable.
While gymnastics, ballet, swimming and other sports in which leotards are typically worn offer strength and flexibility training, it is not just the modesty of the leotards that should be considered when deciding whether to be involved. Care should also be taken to evaluate the long-term health risks of pursuing any of these activities at a competitive level. Gymnastics is without question a dangerous sport. Amateur ballet is safer than gymnastics, but if ballet is pursued to the level of pointe work or extreme hip turnout, feet and joints may be damaged for life. Swimming is one of the best non-impact aerobic exercises available, but long-term shoulder injuries are common when the sport is pursued intensely. My personal view is that variety and moderation is the most healthful approach to sports. As a child, my parents allowed me to be involved in several different sports, and my exercise routine as an adult includes elements of aerobic, strength and flexibility training learned from those multiple disciplines. My current exercise outfits would not set trends in the athletic world, but they are modest, comfortable and allow freedom of movement. Most sports can be done while wearing uniforms that are more modest than standard, and you may find to your surprise that loose, modest clothing offers greater comfort than tight clothing made from synthetic fibers. Visit our reviews of modest culottes and swimsuits to begin researching the possibilities. Or, if you are ambitious enough to sew your own, visit our reviews of leotard sewing patterns that may be customized with low-cut legs and skirt overlays.
Thank you, Julie, August 3, 2012
Thank you for writing this - exactly what I've been thinking!
Love this, Ama, August 5, 2012
I could not figure out why the females in each sport have to wear such skimpy clothing, while the men get to wear shorts (at the least!). As someone who dresses modestly, I'd like to know that people who dress like me won't be denied opportunities because they refuse to strip down to their underwear to compete. Considering how young some of the athletes are, you'd think they would encourage them to wear more.
Absolutely, Sew Sabina, August 26, 2012
I totally agree with you. . . . The same level of competition can be achieved with more coverage.
Let's change the system!, Mom of 5, September 20, 2012
Thank you for writing this. I am a mother of a spunky 5-year-old who just started gymnastics and because of her natural talent was promptly invited to be on their Team. We were flattered and excited until I learned that she wouldn't be able to wear the cute little shorts over the leotard that she wears now. My husband is prepared to fight the system! We feel these little girls just need to be a little more covered up while spreading their legs; in this day and age, there are too many sexually and morally confused folks out there watching my little girl. I'm not sure what I can do but I assure you that we will do all we can.
Challenging Battle, Fashion Belle, September 21, 2012
I'm inspired by your motivation to stand by your convictions. It may be an uphill battle at traditional gyms. Even if you convince them to allow your daughter to wear shorts for training, once she starts competing, she will be required to follow competition rules for dress and also possibly wear a team uniform. Have you considered starting your own gymnastics class with other families who feel the same as you do about modesty? Ballet offers more coverage with tights, but the problem of pointe shoes will emerge eventually. A girl should never wear them until the cartilage in her feet has turned to bone, and even then, the feet can still be deformed for life. It is difficult for a young woman to progress in ballet if her parents do not allow her to wear pointe shoes, but I feel that this is a safety precaution that should be observed. Modern ballet stays with soft shoes and may be another option to consider. Best wishes to you and your family as you process these decisions. Physical training is important for girls, but the question of how to do it modestly can be a challenge in our culture.
Gymnasts who wear leggings, Fashion Belle, January 14, 2013
A former Muslim gymnast @GreaterLengths Tweeted the following reply to this article:
@thefashionbelle Thanks for posting! I had to wear leggings w my leos as a Muslim gymnast and it always felt awkward.
@GreaterLengths If you don't mind, I'm going to post your Tweet on the end of the article. It's our all-time most popular article.
@GreaterLengths I KNEW gymnasts could perform in leggings. Ballet dancers always do, and some of their moves are even more extended.
@GreaterLengths And, hello, male gymnasts get to wear pants.
@GreaterLengths Leggings in gymnastics for girls should be standard. Wish you could set a new trend. No more worries tiny outfits will slip.