Little White Shorts Are Not Empowering

The Cal women's volleyball team during a match...

The Cal women's volleyball team during a match against USC in Berkeley. The Golden Bears won 3 sets to 1. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was in junior high, I spent my grade seven year stubbornly resisting all recruiting efforts to entice me to play school team sports. My interest and ability was not a secret. Until grade six, recess was my favorite class solely because of sports. I played whatever ball was going. Baseball. Basketball. Kickball. And like every other girl, I played with the boys. Co-ed teams were the norm from grade two on. It’s how we played in the neighborhoods. We thought little enough of it.

But the parish pastor spent an unhealthy amount of time brooding on it and the year I was in sixth grade, he informed the school’s principal, Sr. Walmar, that once students entered Unit 3 (grades five and six), we were to play athletic games with our respective genders only.

And being a good little nun, Sr. Walmar complied.

First, it was basketball. Not only were we girls not to play with the boys, but when we tried to play on our own, we were informed we must play it “girl’s rules” now. Six on six basketball is an abomination of the highest order in my eyes. I thought so then and I continue to view it that way. Though many in my home state of Iowa lament its inevitable demise, I still say – good riddance.

The day that one of the math teachers came out to teach us the rules sticks vividly in my memory. After going along with her instructions for about ten minutes, I announced that I was going to find something else to do for the rest of the recess period, and I walked away with several of my friends in tow. Not to be thwarted, Sr. Marlu made the learning of six on six part of our PE curriculum, and I went along but I never played the game unless my grade was at stake.

Eventually, baseball and kickball were not only downgraded from co-ed status but in an effort to get we girls to take up the nice feminine sport of volleyball, we were forbidden to play kickball on the volleyball courts (even though there wasn’t a single girl between grades five and eight who would play the game, which was partly because we’d recently been banned from wearing shorts under our school skirts and partly b/c the courts were located on the asphalt parking lot).

Grade seven rolled around and I snubbed everything. Not volleyball. Nor basketball. No softball and forget about track. I was not about to knuckle under. I would play as I pleased or not at all.

But when grade eight came, a few of my friends who had joined the school teams the year before brought a bit of peer pressure to bear. I was a good athlete. They’d spent the last year mostly losing. What kind of friend was I anyway?

Our parish was not well off. Our school reflected this in a myriad of ways. The boys teams had uniforms but the girls had team t-shirts only, not real uniforms like the other Catholic schools girls’ teams did. That changed at the beginning of our basketball season. Somehow, the pastor had been prevailed upon to outfit us. It was actually a bit exciting when our coach, a young guy who was student teaching in our building, handed them out to us one night after practice. We trooped into the locker room of the elementary school gym that we used, because our school didn’t have a gym, to try them on. They were polyester and very tight. The shirts were unattractive but serviceable. The pants, however, would have been better suited to a Hooters, if such a thing had existed back then.

Tight and very short, any movement sent what little leg covering there was inching up into every crevice imaginable. A great deal of time that season was devoted to pulling the shorts down. And if this wasn’t insult enough, they were white and so thin that great care in underwear selection was a must on game days.

Even the prettiest, slenderest girls were horrified by those hot pants pretending to be basketball shorts, and keep in mind that this was the late 70’s when short gym shorts were the norm.

We all quickly changed out of the shorts and went out to tell our coach that the shorts were too small.

His response?

Go back in there and try them on and let me decide if they are too small.

We were seventh and eighth graders. It was 1977. We put the shorts back on and paraded around while this 22-year-old education major assessed our assessment. He tried to keep his expression neutral, but he was pretty new to the whole “teaching” thing and he was clearly embarrassed.  He told us he would fix it. He was too young to really know how the education hierarchy worked and too indoctrinated in our shared religion to understand that he had no hope of fixing anything.

He went to the pastor and explained but was told that the shorts couldn’t be returned, and we would wear them or not play.

I was all in favor of not playing. In grade eight I was nearly as tall as I am now and weighed only slightly less than I do now. I was never a little girl and at the time, the phrase “all arms and legs” was me to a tee. I offered to get a pair of regular white gym shorts and wear them but was told again that I would wear the uniform or not play. If I hadn’t committed to my friends to stick that wretched season out before it even began, I’d have walked with no problems. But I’d promised, so I sandwiched up and wore the damned hot pants even though I knew exactly what I looked like in them and just what the boys who saw us were going to do and say. I may have only been 13 but I’d been female long enough at that point to know what one did and didn’t wear, when and why.

Our school developed quite the reputation that season. Word of our “panties” spread. It wasn’t unusual for a lot of boys from the opposing school to hang around for the girls basketball games when we were the visiting team.

Yes, there was catcalling. All with leering  and plenty of wishing the wooden gym floors would open up in a suitably biblical fashion and swallow us whole (but not before lightning bolts smote every leering grin in the room).

But only once did our coach experience any of t it for himself.

It was after the game at Nativity, and we trekked dejectedly (we’d lost again aside from me and a few of my friends, no one on our team could play to save their lives) and the Nativity boys lined the stairwell leading down to the locker rooms – leering and full of themselves with witty commentary on our scanty panties.

They didn’t see Coach and when they did, they scattered.

At the next practice he said, “I’ve talked to Father and for the rest of the season, you can wear your own shorts, so long as they are white.”

And that was that.

In the end, it was not our feelings that swayed either our Coach or the parish pastor, but the opinions of other men, albeit rather young ones. Which is the point of the story. Men decide and women abide.

Just as an aside to the story, my father attended the Nativity game. It was the only one he’d been able to get to all season, so he’d never seen the shorts. After, he’d been grim-faced enough that had Coach not gone to talk with the pastor, I am pretty sure my dad would have because even though the coach had been too young and too much of a butt-kisser to act, what my Dad saw that night was what everyone had seen all season, and what my male peers knew without being told. We were dressed like street-walkers. Those tiny shorts did not highlight our athletic limbs as much as they showcased our budding sexuality. And every male who saw us, regardless of age, knew it.

Not long ago, Dee asked for a sweater that would sit off her shoulder. Eventually all fashion is new again and apparently the Flashdance look of the 80’s has rolled back around. She wanted the sweater to wear over a thin strapped t-shirt. She is nine. I thought little of it. She is very tiny and often mistaken for a younger child still. No big deal.

“She’ll look like a tart,” her father told me when I mentioned it to him.

Did I mention that she is nine? But yet that’s what her own father thinks of her in that outfit.

Men see us differently than we choose to pretend we look to the world.

The mothers at the last dance studio Dee attended would vehemently defend the risque jazz outfits that frankly wouldn’t have looked out of place in a skin joint. They saw “art”, but my guess is that more than one father and grandfather at those performances saw “stripper” in the making.

A mother I know recently wrote about the too tight, too short pants that her pre-teen daughter is supposed to wear to play volleyball. Not wanting to be “that mom”, she’s chosen the path of deep breathing and hoping that she is just overreacting a bit. After all, females from 10 to the Olympics wear those skin tight butt huggers to play the game – never mind that not a single other female sport from basketball to soccer is similarly clad or that boys/men who play volleyball are allowed to wear long shorts. Her daughter loves volleyball, and it’s a “no short shorts/no play” thing. And maybe in the long run, it’s no big deal.

If I could relive grade eight, I would have never donned those white shorts. I’d have quit on the spot and walked home that cold dark November evening. It’s been 35 years and I still remember what it felt like to walk in front of a gym full of people and know what was being whispered about us in those shorts.


12 thoughts on “Little White Shorts Are Not Empowering

  1. I’m jumping in to this rather late – and from an entirely male perspective – and parent of two teenage girls. Men are visual creatures. We respond to what we see – and as you experienced, tight, white hot pants, are not what girls should be wearing. As you discussed with your own daughter, males will jump to conclusions based on what a female is wearing – and unfortunately, it has always been (and likely will continue to be for some time more) the female’s responsibility to chose carefully what she wears, particularly when there may be males around to see her. The required attire for volleyball – and especially beach volleyball – tennis and other “sports” are really just intended to continue the objectification of women for the visual stimulation of men. But it doesn’t end on the sports field. It’s a sad reality that is equally true on sidewalks and in workplaces.
    I am sure that on a sub-conscious level I will regret the day, but as you said “As women, we are still second guessing ourselves and are reluctant to make waves – even when we know we are right.” Women (and especially young girls) need to recognise that the way they dress affects the way men (or boys) percieve them – and that may not be the way they want to be seen/thought of…. dressing “modestly” is not a bad thing.

    1. Having grown up when I did, I recognize the truth in this. That said, I am long past tired of having to police men’s male instinct for them. Isn’t it maybe time we retire the idea that since males are visual creatures women should baby their inability to be mature and respectful? That is, after all, the basis for a lot of religious fundamentalist nonsense that puts the onus for behavior far more on the female than it does on the male.

      Women have eyes too. We are not oblivious to what men are wearing or not wearing.

      Alas, we have not come as far from my growing up days though as so many young women would like to think.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. “Men decide. Women abide.” That’s about as powerful a statement as I’ve heard recently. It certainly didn’t help that this happened within the context of the Catholic church/school system. Regardless, what I’m learning is that this kind of thing still happens – in religious and secular settings.

    We’ve got to start and continue to stand up for ourselves.

  3. I’ve noticed the teens and preteens here dressing in the 80s fashions, and it makes me feel just like it did back then. I wasn’t allowed to wear some of that stuff, and I wasn’t teenaged enough to sneak around and wear it. It’s funny how life cycles on itself.

    I’m sorry about your shorts. We had gym shorts like that, and they were terrible. I was allowed to wear the boys’ shorts which were three times longer and cotton instead of polyester. I don’t remember how I finagled that, but I do remember the other girls being jealous and me telling the boys gym teacher that he should sell they shorts to all the girls.
    So sad.

    1. This reminds me that when I started high school the next year, we were required to wear these god awful one pieced gym suits that made us look like extras from a women’s prison movie. The boys had to wear blue gym shorts and a t-shirt with the school mascot and name on it.

      Oh we complained! The gym teacher had heard it for years but for some reason that year, she listened and it was either second semester or the following fall that we girls were allowed to were the same uniform the boys did.

      The boys, by the way, preferred us in those jailbait outfits. I hated having to be in the gym with them when we were wearing them. It felt like having to work out in your pajamas for an audience.

  4. Thank you for the ping back…Jessica Gottlieb’s post really was the one that inspired me to write mine.
    Your story really makes this issue one for all generations…nothing really has changed much in 30+ years. Thanks for sharing.

    1. You are welcome. I probably wouldn’t have written about it but another mother on FB basically tried to make me feel like a prude about my own reservations. It reinforced the feeling that I’ve had for a while that we women are the best police force that sexism could have recruited to ensure its survival. We are quick to tell each other that those things that make us feel uncomfortable or exposed are “no big deal. grow up.” or “stop being such a buzzkill about nothing”. If a certain way of dressing makes us feel exposed, it’s because we are exposed and whether or not we show a little of a lot of skin should be our choice no matter what the circumstances.

      Men are men. They think things when they see us in tight little outfits even if they don’t say it out loud. Should we be teaching our daughters to just deal or to demand the right to determine their body image for themselves?

      I told my daughter that the shirt wasn’t appropriate for her. I told her that boys might see her in it and come to the conclusion that maybe she was older than she is and ready for things – like being a girlfriend – that she is not. She considered what I said and she agreed that the shirt could wait until she “was a teenager”.

      The thing is that skimpy outfits in sports are more about getting men to watch the sport than they are necessary to play the sport effectively. The same goes for dance or the swimsuit portion of a beauty contest. It’s all about the objectification of the female and ensuring that in the eyes of men, we stay a collection of parts rather than a whole person whose rights and feelings have to be recognized. It’s subtle and it’s worked well for centuries.

        1. Sadly, I have to agree with you on that. As women, we are still second guessing ourselves and are reluctant to make waves – even when we know we are right.

        2. You are not going to cancel millions of years of biology by wishing men would “grow up”. They are as grown up as they’re going to get. It’s in your hands to decide whether the fight will happen. And nothings going to change without you making it so.

          Which is a shame…

        3. I think perhaps you misunderstood. It’s women who tell other women to “grow up” and “deal”. I have no doubt that if more of us stood up that more of us would follow and things might change.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.