Concerns about the uniforms stop some girls from participating in sport

Sport uniforms can be a big decider in girls’ decisions to quit sport, according to new research published in Sport, Education and Society.

The research, carried out by England hockey star Tess Howard, found that more than three-quarters of women surveyed had seen girls drop out of sport in school because of clothing and body image issues.

Howard surveyed 404 UK women online about school sports uniforms and their attitudes to sport. She then interviewed eight of the survey respondents, all of whom were aged 18-24 and had recent memories of school.

Tess howard hitting hockey ball on pitch
Tess Howard, playing for England against China in the FIH Hockey Women’s World Cup 2022. Credit: Photo by Patrick Goosen/BSR Agency/Getty Images

“The findings I discovered, in terms of the number of girls this is putting off sport, is truly alarming,” says Howard.

“It’s the most underrated cause of low female sport numbers.”

More than three-quarters of survey respondents said their main sports uniform in school was a skirt or skort and a collared shirt, with more than half saying they had no alternative options.

According to both the survey and the interviews, this was off-putting for many young women, both marking them out as different and displaying their bodies in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.

“No person should be put off participating in any sport based purely on what the uniform requires them to wear,” says Howard.

“We must put the purpose of sport first and enable individuals to enjoy being active for all the clear benefits.

“If people want to wear shorts or leggings playing basketball, or tennis, or gymnastics, it does not matter.”

Howard found that many young women felt sexualised by their sport uniforms, and that gender-split uniforms played into gender stereotypes.

“The legacy of gendered and sexualised uniforms is historic, dating back to Victorian times when women and girls in sport had to find ways to emphasize their femininity to be accepted in a masculine world – whether through playing tennis, cricket and hockey in long skirts or sexualization of beach volleyball and gymnastics uniforms. The legacy still exists,” says Howard.

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“My research shows it taints a view of women’s sport from a very young age, and it puts focus on what girls’ bodies look like, rather than what they can do on the sports field or in the gym.

“Women’s sport is on the rise – we are so proud of our successful female sporting teams; but think of all the girls we have lost to kit problems. It’s not a girl-issue, it’s systemic in society and it’s a simple fix: choice.”

Howard’s research has already spurred England Hockey to change its regulations on playing kit for the 2022/23 season.

It also comes at the same time as a number of women’s national soccer teams, including England, Australia and New Zealand, have made changes to their uniform to be more period conscious, with steps like removing white shorts.

Howard scored a winning goal against Australia in the Commonwealth Games final last year, securing gold for her team. But she’d missed out on the Tokyo Olympics the year prior because of a knee injury.

“My dream is to go to the Olympics, but my dream is also an Olympics with the option to wear shorts or skorts,” she says.

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