More than the uniform: Volleyball players speak out about body image and sexism

Zilbert’s and Bray’s experiences with the volleyball uniform differ from sophomore Sarah Strong. Strong, originally from Brisbane, Australia, has been playing volleyball on beaches that hardly resemble the freezing Oregon coast.

“I play in a bikini, and I’ve always played in a bikini,” Strong said. “Coming from a country like Australia that’s so hot, we naturally just want to take off layers as it gets hot outside. So I feel very comfortable wearing a bikini when I play.”

Although now, as a beach volleyball player at UP, Strong no longer wears bikinis per the NCAA guidelines, she has plenty of experience playing in a bikini for the World Tour. Bikinis are still subject to guidelines there, with specifications about widths and measurements of certain areas of the bikini as well as where advertisements and logos are placed.

But after years of playing in a bikini under the hot sun, Strong understands the function of that uniform.

“You literally just don’t want sand getting in more articles of clothing that it needs to,” Strong said.

But just like her teammates, Strong has seen how the uniform can delegitimize her sport.

“When you talk about getting ready to compete, or you’re picking out bikinis to play in or something, the one thing that’s frustrating is that men will always have comments to say about that,” Strong said. “And sometimes it takes away from you as an athlete.”

Strong pointed out that male athletes don’t have to worry about receiving comments about their clothing or physique, that male athletes can trust that their fans are there to watch the game. She has also seen the toll this can take on the athletes when it comes to body image. Studies have shown that up to 84% of collegiate athletes suffer from disordered eating.

“There’s room for a lot more comparison and a lot more negative body image when we are all wearing bikinis. And if you don’t look like the skinniest, fittest athlete, that can be worrying,” Strong said. “I know that I have had a couple of teammates who have severely struggled with eating disorders, and you can see it quite vividly because we’re out on display all the time.”

Though Strong herself is comfortable wearing a bikini, she has noticed that different body types receive different treatment in the uniform.

“It was hard to find bikinis that fit my proportions and still looked professional. I had a coach make comments once when I was wearing a cheekier bikini,” Strong said. “And it would have been fine if a skinnier girl had worn it, like, nothing would have even been a problem. But he was like, ‘the younger girls look up to you and you need to wear appropriate clothing.’ I was like, ‘I am wearing what everybody else is wearing.’”

Fortunately, the culture may be shifting. Zilbert pointed out that UP’s volleyball teams no longer have to do weigh-ins. Though the purpose of these was to monitor weight loss rather than weight gain, the focus on the scale did more harm than good. Collegiate volleyball players are also able to elect to wear leggings to play in.

But for a sport that displays its athletes bodies to the extent that volleyball does, representation remains an important goal.

“I think representation is really important, because for so long I thought that volleyball players are skinny, with really long limbs and small butts and abs,” Strong said. “And then I started to see more people that weren’t that standard shape playing on the World Tour and playing in the Olympics. And that definitely helps because I know I can still be like the best in the world and look nothing like these skinny fit athletes.”

Bray, Zilbert, and Strong all agreed that this increased representation can help do away with the idea that there is one specific way a female athlete should look.

Grace Zilbert dives to “get the Pancake” to keep the rally alive. Courtesy of Portland Pilot Athletics.

“There isn’t a specific shape or size or color or height or weight that every female athlete should have,” Bray said. “There’s an expectation that we should look one way or another, and fit the mold of a regular person, but we’re not regular people. We’re athletes, we’re working out six days a week, training for hours, and our bodies are being stretched to the limit.”

Bray specifically talked about the importance of representation in the sport as a Black female athlete.

“Growing up, I didn’t really have a Black female volleyball player to look up to in my sport. And so I really just love that I have this opportunity to represent,” Bray said.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.