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Dear Christians in Sport,
What should I wear to play sport which both enables performance and honours God?
Issues around what women should wear for sport have been hotly debated in recent times. It's important to acknowledge right at the start that this question was sent in by a female runner, and that the majority of stories in the press deal with women’s clothing.
Whilst a man or a woman could of course legitimately ask this question, we're going to address it from a female perspective, including looking at a Bible passage that specifically addresses women's clothing.
Many women in the world of sport have begun speaking against regulations which require women to wear tight-fitting and/or revealing kit.
In July 2021, the Norwegian Beach Handball team were fined after they turned up to a European Championship match wearing bicycle shorts rather than the regulation bikini briefs. The rule has now changed, but they are required to wear ‘tight pants’ which are ‘closely fit’ - specifications which are notably missing from the rules for men’s uniform regulation.
In a similar vein, the German gymnastics women’s team competed at the Tokyo Olympics wearing ankle-length unitards instead of revealing, high cut leotards.
A recent podcast from The GameChangers highlighted concerns that being required to wear kit like this objectifies and sexualises females and is unfair because men are not subject to such rigorous rules. Furthermore, it significantly affects participation in that many girls and women feel self-conscious wearing such sportswear, so choose to drop out instead.
On the other hand, Paralympian Olivia Breen spoke out in ‘disgust’ last year after she was told by a female official that her clothing was inappropriate and too revealing. She said, “I recognise that there needs to be regulations and guidelines in relation to competition kit, but women should not be made to feel self-conscious about what they are wearing when competing.”
Some women don't want restrictions on their kit, allowing them to choose what best serves them in performance and confidence.
Also, some may feel pressure to dress in a way to attract or satisfy sponsors and raise the profile of women's sport. This is one of Holly Bradshaw’s concerns:
"I think the commercialisation of women in sport is a little bit of an issue. Unfortunately, if you are wearing less on social media you have more followers, that is more attractive to commercial sponsors and I totally get that the more sponsors - the more reach, but that really is damaging young athletes just trying to get into sport.”
Whilst these approaches might seem to be coming from opposing viewpoints, actually the key motivation which underlies them is the same: stop policing what women wear and let them have control over their own bodies! Let them wear whatever kit is most comfortable for them so they can perform at the best of their ability.
This is a big debate in the wider world of sport, but what does it look like on the ground?
For some sports, this is less of an issue as the kit required for competition would not be considered revealing. However, a participant might think carefully about what they wear for training.
For other sports (e.g. gymnastics, athletics, volleyball), this can be more difficult. Some have very little choice about what they can wear for competitions - particularly at the elite level, whereas others may have more freedom, but they still feel a pressure to dress a certain way.
This is also unavoidable for young people who may feel uncomfortable and self-conscious in the PE kit regulated by their school.
What guidance does the Bible give us in this area?
The Bible is clear that our bodies are not placed on earth for the pleasure and satisfaction of others. All people, male and female, are created in the image of God and are of infinite value and inestimable worth. Your physical body is precious in God’s sight, just as every human body is. For a Christian, though, we need to remember our bodies are ultimately never our own – we have been created by God for his glory.
As creatures, it makes sense that God has given us guidance about how to live in the bodies he has given us. That includes what we wear and the Bible does give some particular instructions to women regarding dressing with modesty:
I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
1 Timothy 2: 9-10.
The key thing from these verses is that women should dress modestly, with decency and propriety. We are not to wear things which are deliberately suggestive or seductive. This is the universal principle. What follows is the cultural application, specific to the Ephesian Christians Paul is writing to at the time.
It is not that Paul is pronouncing an absolute ban on certain hairstyles and jewellery, but rather to be aware of what these things represent in a particular culture. Back in Ephesus, this attire would have identified Christian women with the pervasive idol worship of the times and therefore inappropriate for them to adorn themselves with.
John Stott wrote on these verses: “what Paul is emphasising is that Christian women should adorn themselves with clothing, hairstyles and jewellery which in their culture are inexpensive not extravagant, modest not vain, and chaste not suggestive.”
More of a priority is adorning ourselves with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. There are two kinds of beauty: physical and moral, body and character. It is the heart that counts. We are to wear clothes which are fitting for a woman who trusts the Lord above all else and gives herself to Him.
As one writer says, “a woman’s faith ought to influence her wardrobe choices as much as it influences the rest of her behaviour… The Bible sets a standard for godly dress that far surpasses adherence to a set of rules. It promotes the type of godliness that flows from the inside out. True godliness.”
Modesty is primarily a posture of the heart, which will be reflected in every area of our life, including our clothing.
Therefore, the most important factor in this question of what women should wear for sport is: what is my heart’s motivation in this matter? Am I seeking to honour God, or others, or myself? Is my faith influencing what I wear?
Here are a couple of thoughts depending on whether your sport gives you an option around what you wear or not:
1 Does this clothing fit my identity as a child of God, whose focus is on godliness rather than physical attractiveness?
2 Does this clothing genuinely enhance sporting performance? It’s worth asking the question before feeling we ‘need’ to wear something.
It’s also worth thinking about what I am wearing the rest of the time. It might be that certain kit is helpful during competition, but perhaps before / after and during training you could wear something alternative or over the top.
So, what should I wear to play sport which both enables performance and honours God?
This can be a tricky area to navigate, and often what we wear is a wisdom call. Let us remember that we are not defined by what we wear, but as deeply loved children of God. We are saved by grace rather than what we do or don’t do, or what we wear or don’t wear.
In response to God’s great love for us, it is natural to want to live for Him in all we do. May that be the key motivator in deciding what to wear for sport.
Rosie is at St Mary's Church Basingstoke and an ultimate frisbee Player.
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