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NCAA DII Female Student-Athletes' Perceptions of Their Sport Uniforms and Body Image.

Objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) refers to the ways in which females are sexually objectified in various contexts and is a lens researchers have used to understand the perceptions of athletes about their uniform and body image in the sporting environment (Steinfeldt, Zakrajsek, Bodey, Middendorf, & Martin, 2013). According to this theory, women from Western cultures are considered objects, and their value is determined based on their appearance; thus, girls and women may internalize these values and focus their attention on how they look (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). This internalized self-objectification leads to constant self-monitoring and self-surveillance of appearance which can siphon attention away from important activities (e.g., sport performance). Psychological consequences that arise from this process include body shame, anxiety, lack of awareness of physiological states (e.g., hunger), and fewer flow experiences (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997).

Athletics provides a unique backdrop for body objectification (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997); this is especially true considering that the sporting environment "places the physical body on center stage ... in which [female athletes'] bodies are evaluated not only based on performance, but on appearance" (Greenleaf, 2002, p. 63). In some sports, female athletes wear skintight uniforms that expose their bodies, potentially increasing their experiences of being sexualized by others (Koines, 1995). Moreover, female athletes--specifically those who wear revealing uniforms--have reported their awareness of others' evaluations of their bodies (Krane, Waldron, Michalenok, & Stiles-Shipley, 2001). Therefore, feelings of objectification related to the body may be closely linked to the type of sport uniform female athletes are required to wear. Tight and revealing uniforms may lead to self-surveillance and body monitoring (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Moreover, Gurung and Chouse (2007) found that female athletes who were photographed wearing revealing clothing were deemed less intelligent and capable than those photographed in looser clothing. Thus, the tight and/ or revealing uniforms required for female sports may be related to feelings of objectification and ultimately negative psychological outcomes and experiences within sport.

Researchers have suggested that female athlete experiences of body objectification through their sport uniforms may begin as early as adolescence. For example, Thomsen, Bower, and Barnes (2004) interviewed 41 adolescent female volleyball players about their female athletes' phtographs in sport, fitness, and health magazines. The interviewees reported negative evaluations of female volleyball uniforms, which included comments focused on the impossibility of meeting the ideal body standards that the spandex shorts imposed. More recently, a study with 404 adolescent female athletes found that those who participated in sports described as aesthetic individual sports (i.e., swimming, figure skating, ballet dancing, tennis, track and cross-country) reported significantly more anxiety about their bodies than both aesthetic (i.e., volleyball, color guard, auxiliary dance, cheerleading) and nonaesthetic (i.e., basketball, soccer, softball, marching band) team sport participants (Gay, Monsma, & Torres-McGehee, 2011). Therefore, it appears that female adolescent athletes may experience magnified body image concerns related to sport uniforms, especially those that are tight and revealing. In addition, adolescent female athletes who are physically maturing and required to wear more revealing sport uniforms may be at a higher risk for experiencing concerns related to body dissatisfaction and anxiety than those required to wear less revealing uniforms.

Feelings of objectification and body image concerns associated with revealing uniforms also seem to be present in adult and collegiate athletes (Krane, Waldron, et al., 2001; Krane, Choi, Baird, Aimer, & Kauer, 2004; Price & Pettijohn, 2006; Reel, 1998; Reel & Gill; 1996; Reel & Gill, 2001; Steinfeldt et ah, 2013; Torres-McGehe, Monsma, Dompier, & Washburn, 2012; Torres-McGehee, Monsma, Gay, Minton, & Mady-Foster, 2011). For example, Price and Pettijohn (2006) found that 38 collegiate female ballet dancers reported less satisfaction with their athletic bodies when they wore tights and leotards compared to looser clothing. It was argued that the form-fitting nature of their clothing may have elicited more discomfort in addition to self and other body objectification. In a similar study, Torres-McGehee and colleagues (2012) surveyed 136 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I (DI) and Division II (DII) cheerleaders and those who wore more revealing uniforms (i.e., those that exposed the midriff) reported more pathogenic behaviors (e.g., binge eating, dieting, laxatives, etc.) and body dissatisfaction compared to those who wore less revealing uniforms. One hundred thirty-eight Division I collegiate equestrian athletes also reported maladaptive eating behaviors indicative of a negative body image impacted by, in addition to other factors, the form-fitting nature of the uniforms for both English and Western riders (Torres-McGehee et al., 2011). Most recently, nine female collegiate volleyball players reported that their revealing uniforms contributed to decreased body esteem and were a distraction during their on-court performance (Steinfeldt et al., 2013).

While researchers such as those reported above have suggested that female athletes' feelings of objectification based on their uniforms may begin in adolescence and continue throughout their competitive careers, research exploring this phenomenon is lacking. Yet, many female athlete uniforms become more revealing and tight as they transition from youth to adolescent to adult sport participation (SooHoo, Reel, & Pearce, 2011). In addition, uniforms in some sports (e.g., basketball) have been described as less "feminine" with lower emphasis on appearance while other sport uniforms (e.g., volleyball) have been described as more "feminine" with greater emphasis on appearance (Parsons & Betz, 2001). Therefore, the purpose of the current study was to qualitatively explore female athletes' perceptions of their sport uniforms and body image framed by objectification theory as they transitioned from youth to adult sport participation. A second purpose of the current study was to explore female athletes' perceptions of the relationship between uniform and body image across sports.


Consensual qualitative research (CQR; Hill, 2012; Hill, Thompson, & Williams, 1997) was utilized as the methodology for the current study in order to draw out female athletes' perceptions and experiences with their uniform and body image during sport participation. In terms of the philosophical assumptions of ontology and epistemology, CQR (Hill, 2012; Hill et al., 1997) methodology adopts predominantly constructivist ideologies, though there are also postpositive elements (Hill, Thompson, Knox, Williams, & Ladany, 2005). Within CQR, the researcher and participant work together to construct a narrative about the participants' experiences, and probes within a semi-structured interview guide point participants toward specific aspects of their experiences. Postpositivist elements of CQR include the inclusion of frequencies and third person voice within qualitative data reporting. In the current study, CQR methodology was chosen to provide a platform for young female athletes to describe their perceptions of and experiences in their sport uniforms. In this way, the research team was able to address particular developmental and cultural aspects of girls' and women's sport uniforms within the semi-structured interview guide to engage in a critical analysis of the data.


Eighteen NCAA (DII) female student-athletes at a small university in the South Central United States participated in semi-structured interviews. This number is slightly larger than that recommended within CQR methodology (i.e., samples of eight to 15 participants); however, Hill and colleagues (2005) suggest larger samples for more heterogeneous populations. Participants competed in four NCAA DII sports: basketball (n = 5), cross-country (n = 3), softball (n = 5), and volleyball (n = 5). Using Gay and colleagues' (2011) definition of sport types, three athletes (i.e., cross-country) competed in aesthetic individual sports, five athletes (i.e., volleyball) competed in aesthetic team sports, and 10 athletes (i.e., basketball and softball) competed in nonaesthetic team sports. Participants self-identified as Caucasian (n = 9), Hispanic (n = 6), African-American (n = 2), and Filipino and Caucasian (n = 1). Regarding undergraduate classification, the sample comprised seven seniors, four juniors, three sophomores, and three freshmen. The mean age of all participants was 20.56 years (SD = 1.25). The mean weight of all participants was 146.72 pounds (SD = 22.50) and mean height was 66.64 inches (SD = 3.03). Average body mass index (BMI) was 23.17 (SD = 2.75), which was considered within the "normal weight" range of BMI scores (National Institutes of Health, 2013). By sport, only the softball athletes had an average BMI score that was considered "overweight" (BMI = 26.2).


The items on the interview guide were framed by objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) and extended the interview guide used by Steinfeldt et al. (2013). Added items centered on female athletes' perceptions of their changing uniforms and bodies from early sport participation through collegiate sport participation and their perception of sport uniforms and female athlete bodies. Sample questions included: (a) When you were younger, how did you feel about your body while participating in sports? (b) Describe your early impressions of the [sport] uniform--how did that impact your decision to play your sport? (c) Did the type of uniforms worn in other sports ever keep you from participating in them? If so, please elaborate; (d) What are your thoughts about the uniform you typically wear in your sport? and (e) Outside of sport, have you ever felt the need to change or transform your body to look a certain way? If so, provide an example.

Upon Institutional Review Board approval, the fifth author completed a bracketing interview using the interview guide to identify potential biases (Dale, 1996). Then, NCAA DII female athletes were recruited by the fifth author and a research assistant during sport teams' athletic study hall or before or after practice. At that time, the details of the study were explained to potential participants, including informed consent and confidentiality procedures. Those who voluntarily participated in the study signed an infonned consent document. The fifth author conducted all the interviews in person with the basketball, cross-country, and softball participants. The interviews with the volleyball participants were conducted by the research assistant; this was because the fifth author had a professional relationship with the coaches and athletes on the volleyball team (i.e., she was the team's assistant coach and wanted to avoid a conflict of interest). Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim by the fifth author. The data were analyzed using CQR procedures developed by Hill (2012) and colleagues (Hill et al., 1997).

Researchers and External Auditor

In line with CQR methodology (Hill, 2012; Hill, et al., 1997) and its constructivist philosophical underpinnings, the six-member research team discussed their personal background and biases in order to gain awareness of how this information might influence the research process (e.g., interpretation of results, presentation of participants' accounts). Four members of the research team--including the external auditor--were sport psychology faculty members (three self-identified as female, one as male; three self-identified as Caucasian and one as South African) and two were graduate students (both were doctoral students; one self-identified as a Caucasian female and one self-identified as a Biracial male). Research team members had also competed in NCAA Divisions I, II, and III and in a variety of sports (e.g., ballet, cross-country, swimming, tennis, track and field, and volleyball). The faculty members on the research team had extensive experience in qualitative research procedures.

With regard to biases and assumptions, all members had participated in sports with revealing uniforms and reported an unhealthy emphasis on appearance either in their own sport experiences or in their work with other athletes. The research team also shared the assumption that female volleyball athletes would experience more discomfort with their uniforms than those from other sports. In addition, it was expected that female athletes with revealing uniforms would experience heightened body awareness and greater body objectification concerns compared to those with less revealing uniforms. These primary assumptions were identified before reading the transcripts, discussed among the research team prior to the first data analysis meeting, and challenged by the members of the research team throughout the entire research process to create a culture of open discussion and to minimize the influence of these biases on the analysis. Doing this allowed the researchers to keep their biases in check and "faithfully represent how participants described their experiences rather than communicate how we as researchers experience the world" (Hill et al., 2005, p. 197).

Data Analysis

The data were analyzed using CQR (Hill, 2012; Hill et al., 1997) procedures. In addition to monitoring biases and assumptions, the procedures outlined in this section align with common procedures to establish trustworthiness of the data and bolster the rigor of the study. First, five members of the research team read and discussed articles about CQR methodology (Hill, 2012; Hill et al., 1997, 2005), and many had previous experience conducting research studies using CQR. Prior to the first data analysis meeting, the research team read the interview transcripts independently to develop their own analytical interpretations of the data. Then, the team met several times to discuss their interpretations of the data and come to consensus on a thematic structure that included domains (i.e., themes), categories (i.e., subthemes), and core ideas (i.e., raw data, Hill et al., 1997). The research team members sent the preliminary domains, categories, and core ideas in the form of a table (see Table 1) to the external auditor.

An external auditor was used to gain additional perspectives about the content and structure of the data, curtail groupthink tendencies, and provide further rigor in the data analysis process (Hill, 2012; Hill et al., 1997, 2005). The external auditor followed the same analytic procedures as the research team prior to looking at the table that they had constructed. Then, the external auditor sent her impressions of how well the data matched the table to the research team.

The research team then met again to discuss the external auditor's feedback and to come to consensus on the final categorization of the data. As a final step, a cross-analysis was conducted where the first and second authors assigned frequencies to the categories based on the extent to which they were evident across all transcripts (e.g., cases). The frequencies were labeled general (i.e., appearing in all or all but one of the cases), typical (i.e., appearing in more than half of the cases), and variant (i.e., appearing in half of the cases or less; see Table 1).

Results and Discussion

The purpose of the current study was to better understand female athletes' experiences of their body and sport uniforms as they transitioned from youth to adult sport participation framed by objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). As a result of the CQR process (Hill, 2012; Hill et al., 1997, 2005), the research team constructed four domains and 13 categories (see Table 1): (a) prepubescentperceptions regarding uniform', (b) "transition to puberty" perceptions regarding uniform', (c) college perceptions regarding uniform', and (d) advice based on experience. Overall, the first three domains that emerged were reflective of three retrospective developmental stages that participants discussed regarding their perceptions about their bodies and sport uniforms.

Domain I: Prepubescent Perceptions Regarding Uniforms

The first domain represented NCAA Dll female athletes' perceptions of their bodies and uniforms during early sport participation before they reached puberty. The categories derived from this domain included: (a) uniforms were a non-issue; (b) uniforms were comfortable; and (c) gender-marked uniforms.

Uniforms were a non-issue. In terms of their experiences in their sport uniforms prior to puberty, NCAA DII female athletes in the current study recalled typically not thinking about their bodies or uniforms prior to adolescence. The first category, uniforms were a non-issue, represented participants' lack of awareness or concern about their uniforms during prepubescent sport participation. In response to her early impressions of her uniform, a softball player replied, "I mean, everybody liked the uniform, not the color, but the uniform. For the most part, I mean nothing was ever out of the ordinary. It was kind of like, 'Alright, there's the uniform'" (softball #4). Participants also discussed not thinking about their body or caring about how they looked in their uniform during prepubescent sport participation. In response to how they felt about their sport uniforms and body when they were younger, a cross-country runner replied, "When I was younger I didn't really think about my body when I was playing sports" (cross-country #3); a volleyball player stated, "I just wanted to be an athlete. I didn't really care about how I looked" (volleyball #2) and a softball player said, "It really didn't affect me at all. I didn't even think about it" (softball #1). Overall, female athletes reported not thinking about their uniforms or their body much during early sport participation.

Uniforms were comfortable. In the second category, uniforms were comfortable, participants described the uniforms they wore during their childhood sport participation to be comfortable because they were loose and non-revealing. A basketball player reflected on her early impressions of the uniform during sport participation, stating, "I started playing soccer when I was little, and I liked the uniforms because they were very comfortable. You run and it's very loose" (basketball #1). Likewise, a basketball player spoke about her youth basketball uniforms, stating, "We had regular basketball uniforms, just shorts ... and they were really comfortable" (basketball #5).

Gender-marked uniforms. In the third category, gender-marked uniforms, participants emphasized that the type of uniforms worn during their early years of sport participation were less gender-marked compared to their high school or collegiate sport uniforms.

For example, they reported that it was common for all sport participants (male or female) to wear shorts during early sport participation. As a softball player stated, "I started playing softball when I was five and never got a break since then. From when I started all the way until I was 12 to 13, the common uniform was shorts" (softball #3). Some participants described their uniforms during prepubescent sport participation as "similar to the boys'" uniforms; for example, a softball player recalled her uniforms prior to puberty, stating:

Growing up, I saw my older brother play baseball, and they had the long pants, the baggier shirts ... softball was a little bit tighter pants, up to the knees. It was just kind of, it was similar, but it was different at the same time. I liked the long pants growing up. I want the long pants. I want to be like the boys, (softball #4)

Body objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) may help to explain these findings. For example, body objectification theory has been utilized to explicate the ways that women are sexually objectified in environments such as organized sport. Though Davison and colleagues (2002) found that prepubescent female athletes who participated in aesthetic sports (i.e., those in which leanness was encouraged) had the most weight concerns compared to their other young females, female athletes in the current study did not discuss such concerns (Davison, Earnest, & Birch, 2002). Perhaps feelings of objectification may not have been experienced by the current study's participants because leanness was not emphasized or valued (through the uniform or other sociocultural practices) in their particular childhood sports. Moreover, athletes in the current study recalled wearing loose-fitting shorts in their pre-adolescent sport participation. Perhaps a more important finding is the lack of emphasis or value on tightness for sport uniforms prior to puberty.

Domain II: "Transition to Puberty" Perceptions Regarding Uniforms

The second domain focused on NCAA DII female athletes' perceptions about their bodies and sport uniforms as they transitioned through puberty. Four categories were constructed in this domain: (a) discomfort with tighter, more restrictive, revealing, gender-appropriate uniforms; (b) body comparisons based on gender norms; (c) uniform manipulations; and (d) normalization and acceptance.

Discomfort with more restrictive, revealing, gender-appropriate uniforms. As participants moved from prepubescent to pubescent sport participation, they reported experiencing their uniforms as going from less to more gender-marked, from comfortable and "not even thought about" to uncomfortable and more form-fitting. This was consistent for all sports, with volleyball having the most drastic and concerning uniform change. In this first category, discomfort with more restrictive, revealing, gender-appropriate uniforms, some participants described their less restrictive and revealing uniforms (i.e., basketball) as more comfortable than other female sport uniforms that were more restrictive and revealing (i.e., volleyball). A basketball player described her uniform as "really loose [which] lets you move around. They're not as tight-fitting, they are not revealing or anything. I just like it because it's really loose and you get to move around in it" (basketball #5). Another basketball player said,

I played volleyball, but I didn't like the uniforms, and I played soccer, and they have real tight uniforms, too ... I stopped playing [volleyball] because I got hurt, but it's probably the shorts that made me the most uncomfortable. They were too short, (basketball #1)

She continued by saying:

For the most part, I like basketball uniforms but I don't know if I could play volleyball because all uniforms are so tight because that's the look. I wish [the uniforms] could be a little more loose. Track uniforms were super tight. I had a hard time in track because the uniforms were tight. Softball uniforms are fine, (basketball #1)

A softball player described her softball uniform as not too form-fitting or revealing and also as compared to other sports as "a lot more comfortable than volleyball. Not as loose or free as basketball. Kind of more restrictions. Because it's softball, you have to wear pants, but athletic-wise I'd rather wear like basketball shorts" (softball #1).

In addition, participants emphasized that volleyball uniforms were the most uncomfortable and revealing, openly stating that they would not participate in volleyball at least partially because of the uniform. A cross-country runner said:

As far as even volleyball, [the uniform] would be the only thing that would probably keep me [from participating]. Not because I'm fat or anything, but that's just how I am. Like I don't like to show any skin or anything, (cross-country #1)

Likewise, a basketball player stated that she stopped playing volleyball because she "didn't like volleyball as much. [The uniform] wasn't the main reason, but it had something to do with it" (basketball #5).

Perhaps one of the most compelling findings of this study is the reported impact that tight uniforms had on sport dropout around puberty. Certain personality characteristics such as low self-esteem, fear of failure, and low perceived competence have been associated with youth sport burnout (Vealey & Chase, 2016). Through the lens of objectification theory, it is possible that the changing uniform to one that is more tight and revealing at the time of puberty played a role in the extent to which athletes focused on their appearance. Slater and Tiggemann (2010) have argued that concerns about how girls look in their uniform might play an increasing role in their decision to play sport as they transition into young women. In addition, Schmalz and Kerstette (2006) found that children as young as eight years of age were aware of gender stereotypes in sport and restricted their sporting behaviors and participation to be in line with gender norms. However, we know of no other study suggesting that sport dropout for female athletes around the time of puberty may be related to the type of uniform they are being made to wear. The findings from the current study highlight the importance of this issue for sport constituents such as parents, coaches, organizations, and researchers to consider moving forward.

Body comparisons based on gender norms. Body comparisons based on gender norms centered on athletes comparing themselves to other female athletes during puberty, including athletes they knew as well as female athletes they saw on television and in the media. Citing the desire to have a body size and look that fit female body norms while wearing her uniform, a cross-country runner spoke about more fitted cross-country uniforms (i.e., spandex shorts) she saw on competitors, stating:

Well, when you look at the more fitted uniform, I think it's natural for you to look at somebody else and say ... 'Oh wow, that's a nice body,' you know, 'I wish I had that body. They look good in that uniform.' (cross-country #3)

In addition, some athletes were more or less comfortable with their bodies based on comparisons with other athletes. A softball player said:

If someone's bigger than me, then I say, 'Well, I'm not that big. I don't look that bad in my uniform.' If someone is skinnier than me or more athletic looking than me, then I compare that to myself, of course, (softball #2)

Another softball player described how when she reached puberty, she started to realize:

'Okay, I want to look good in my uniform.' I don't think when I was younger it was something that really mattered to me, but getting into middle school and stuff, you're just noticing things about yourself and other girls, and comparing yourself, (softball #5)

Participants also compared themselves and their body types to female non-athletes. A cross-country runner spoke about how she started to compare her body to other girls as she reached puberty, stating, "I mean, that's a time when everybody's kind of getting more mature with their bodies, and so you look and like, 'Why aren't my boobs coming in,' ... 'I'm a boy'" (cross-country #3). Similarly, a basketball player commented on her comparisons to the "perfect bodies" of women on TV and her desire to change her body based on those body types (basketball #3).

It was during puberty that body image and uniform appearance became increased concerns for female athletes in the current study. They reported increasing their attention toward their own and others' bodies. When tight uniforms were introduced during middle school sport participation, a standard of the "female athlete look" was also reported. Sporting bodies were now on display in practice and competition, promoting body comparisons between young female athletes and pressures to meet female athlete body ideals. From a developmental perspective, adolescence has been associated with the highest risk for developing body image concerns (Gowers & Shore, 2001). For example, Cooper and Goodyer (1997) found that weight and shape concerns increased for girls between the ages of 11 to 16 years. The findings from the current study resemble those of SooHoo et al., (2011), who found that adolescent cheerleaders experienced heightened body awareness during puberty. More specifically, they reported that the uniforms (i.e., skirts that are "pretty short") worn by the older squad (around age 17) as compared to the uniforms (i.e., skirts "almost to the knees") worn by the younger squad (around age 10) magnified body image pressures experienced by the older athletes. Female athletes in the current study noted that gazing at one another in their tighter, more revealing uniforms and comparing their bodies to other female bodies and to the female athlete body standard was a common and natural occurrence for middle school girls. These remarks are particularly troubling, as young female athletes transitioning through puberty may feel as though their bodies are and should be on display; the uniform, therefore, is symbolic of the gendered phenomenon of the sexualization of female athletes as well as a bias toward those young women who are "feminine." In addition, due to tighter uniforms, heightening body objectification occurs at this critical developmental period.

Uniform manipulations. In the third category, uniform manipulations, participants described how they would alter their uniforms before or during play to feel more comfortable about their bodies during puberty, especially in front of spectators. Many athletes were acutely aware of the spectators' gazes and worked to keep the look of their bodies (in their uniforms) under their control. Examples of uniform manipulations included wearing multiple bras or undergarments to constrict or hide the body from spectators. As a basketball player said, "I would wear three or four sports bras just so my chest would be more packed down and I could fit into the uniform" (basketball #1). A softball player stated, "I would put basketball shorts over my volleyball shorts ... they would make me run because I kept pulling down my 'spankies.' It didn't stop me from playing, but I would prefer not to have to wear those" (softball #1). Another softball player stated, "I would feel myself kind of tugging at my jersey because it was-it felt too tight but it wasn't. Like, I'm self-conscious, grabbing my shirt, kind of adjusting myself sometimes. Like, 'Uh, people are looking'" (softball #4). Similarly, a volleyball player stated, "I definitely have to adjust myself after every play ... Like, in the middle of a play, your butt will start popping out or something" (volleyball #5). "Adjusting" and "controlling" were words used to describe this time period in their unifonn.

Discomfort and dissatisfaction with sport uniforms has been reported to negatively impact female athletes' satisfaction with their sport participation (Feather, Ford, & Herr, 1996; Thompson & Sherman, 2010). Interestingly, professional female volleyball athletes have reported similar feelings about their tight and revealing sport uniforms. Megan Hodge, a 23-year-old member of the U.S. Women's National Volleyball Team, was quoted in an interview for the 2012 ESPN The Magazine Body Issue, stating:

I think if it were up to us, we probably wouldn't be wearing the 'bun-hugger shorts.' It doesn't bother me, but if you walk into practice, you'll rarely see anyone wearing the little spandex. At practice, we wear either basketball or running shorts or knee-length spandex. Some people even wear sweatpants (Ain, 2012).

Discomfort in uniforms, especially those that are tight or form-fitting and gender-marking, may create a greater emphasis on the body rather than sport performance (Choi, 2000; Slater & Tiggemann, 2010). This gender-marked emphasis can contribute to feelings of sexual objectification and also to female athletes paying attention to or "fixing" their uniforms versus focusing on their performance. Participants' experiences of spectator gazes are also in line with the objectifying gaze central to objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). The objectifying gaze, or inspection of the body (Kaschak, 1992), creates a platform for sexual objectification. Female athletes in the current study took action to adjust their uniform, which may have been in response to experiencing body objectification and sexualization within competition.

Normalization and acceptance. After making uniform "adjustments", participants in the current study reported going through normalization and acceptance of their gender-marked uniforms during pubescent sport participation. For example, some decided (or were told) that the uniforms were functional or necessary for performance. A softball player said, "I don't know, it was uncomfortable at first, but once you got spoken to about how you just have to deal with it and play your sport, because it's a rule, it was something you just got used to" (softball #3). Likewise, a volleyball player stated, "I definitely thought they were very revealing, and it was uncomfortable at first, but I got used to it" (volleyball #3). Some athletes even deemed the styles of their uniforms necessary for facilitating their performance. Another volleyball player stated, "I think the spandex and then the tighter uniforms helps in volleyball because you do a lot of like diving and rolling. I think if you were wearing loose clothing, it would get in the way" (volleyball #1). Similarly, a softball player stated, "Well, in other sports, they mainly wear shorts, but as we are outside, we're in the dirt, you have to slide. So, you need pants [and] socks; that way you don't get hurt or scratches" (softball #2).

Thus, it appears as though participants came to terms with their uniforms as "just something you got used to." However, this normalization and acceptance was a product of playing in an environment where gender-marked uniforms were mandatory; if participants wanted to continue their sport participation, they had to learn to cope with the stress of tighter uniforms and concomitant body objectification. It is also interesting to note that some athletes in the current study accepted their uniform by perceiving that there was some functional reason for their uniform to be tighter and/or more revealing, even though previous researchers have suggested that female uniforms do not provide a functional advantage over men's uniforms (Klomsten, Marsh, & Shaalvik, 2005; Reel & Gill, 2001; Slater & Tiggemann, 2010; Steinfeldt et al., 2013). Volleyball, cross-country, and softball athletes from the current study even described the tightness of their uniforms as necessary for producing effective movements. Given this evidence, it appears that young female athletes and youth girls' sport coaches may be buying into and internalizing a facade of functionality about the tightness of certain sport uniforms; in many cases, it was the coach who gave the female athletes "talks" about why their uniforms were necessary. Interestingly then, women are also often complicit in their own body oppression.

In Domain II, key themes from cultural sport psychology also push us to deconstruct the findings moving forward. For example, Fisher, Roper, and Butryn (2009) suggest that we interrogate and critique dominant sport practices--like the uniforms that female athletes are made to wear--to see the ways that such practices influence female athletes' identities and experiences. Such an approach demands that we incorporate an analysis of power as it relates to current study participants. Critical questions to keep in mind include: (a) Who has the power to decide what uniforms are worn at all levels of female sport and who does not? (b) How is this power developed, negotiated, and maintained? (c) In what ways do certain uniforms impact female athletes and their psyches long-term? and (d) Who benefits the most from the type of uniforms that female athletes are made to wear in sport? Based on these athletes' retrospective accounts, it appears that youth sport participants fall prey to the power structures embedded within sport and feel pressure from those structures to wear tight, form-fitting, and revealing uniforms to continue their participation in their chosen sport. Thus, more research needs to be done to answer these critical questions and interpret the elements of power that enable the decisions surrounding females' sport uniforms.

Domain III: College Perceptions Regarding Uniforms

In this domain, the unique experiences that NCAA DII female athletes had concerning their athletic bodies and uniforms during their collegiate sport participation were highlighted. Four categories were constructed in this domain: (a) confident when fit and in-shape: "female athlete body (b) significant others' comments regarding body and uniform; (c) manipulation of body to be fit and in-shape; and (d) temporal experiences of uniform.

Confident when fit and in-shape: "Female athlete body." Participants expressed confidence in their uniforms when they felt that they had achieved a fit and in-shape "female athlete body" while engaging in collegiate sport. This, in turn, positively impacted how they perceived their bodies in general as well as in their sport uniforms. A volleyball player said, "I always feel more confident about my body when I'm in a sport" (volleyball #2). A softball player spoke about working out and playing a sport in relation to her body, stating, "If I just work out to be athletic and get stronger, I'll feel a lot better about myself and in whatever I'm wearing" (softball #5). A cross-country runner said:

I like to keep my body fit ... I feel like it's more for me than for other people ... It's just like feeling good about yourself ... When I was in junior high and high school, I feel like I hit what I would see as my ideal body. And so, I'm always striving for that. You know, it's easy to just sit back and not want to work out and take a break from all the sports, and then be like, "Man, I wish I had that muscle that I had. Oh man, I need to lift some weights." ... Not really like I want to be skinnier, I just want to be fit. (cross-country #3)

In U.S. Western culture, a series of contradictions describe the female athlete body ideal--"firm but shapely, fit but sexy, strong but thin" (Markula, 1995, p. 424)--and highlight an intriguing "paradox" of contrasting ideals between the athletic and socially desirable body type (Krane, Stiles-Shipley, Waldron, & Michalenok, 2001). The ideal body for female athletes may also not match societal ideals for female non-athletes, which can contribute to female athletes feeling dissatisfied with their bodies (Krane, et ah, 2004; Krane, Choi, et ah, 2001).

Significant others' comments regarding body and uniform. In the second category, significant others' comments regarding body and uniform, athletes reported experiencing comments from coaches, parents, teammates, and spectators regarding their bodies and how they looked in their uniforms during competition. A softball player recalled her coach's comments in front of her teammates about her weight that made her feel bad about herself:

"You need to run a little more than the other girls. You need to watch what you eat more than the other girls" ... It would have been better if she [the coach] would have approached it in a way where it was kind of away from everybody, (softball #4)

Athletes also experienced comments from their parents about their bodies and uniforms, such as, "My mom thinks the uniforms are tight. She's like, 'Can't you get a bigger one? It's a little tight on your chest'" (basketball #1).

These comments made by significant others often exacerbated feelings of self-consciousness for NCAA DII female athletes about being in their uniforms. A volleyball player recalled comments from a teammate, stating:

One time this girl on my team told me that I had a 'pencil booty', which means you can stick a pencil and it'll stay there, and it made me nervous, well, not nervous, but made me self-conscious about it. (volleyball #3)

Finally, some athletes experienced comments about the decency of their sport uniforms. A volleyball player mentioned that:

I have a couple of girlfriends that would always comment, "Oh, I wouldn't wear that, because I feel it shows too much." Kind of a back-handed compliment type thing. "Oh but you look fine in it, even though, you know, I think I would look like a slut." (volleyball #1)

Manipulation of body to be fit and in-shape. In the third category, manipulation of body to be fit and in-shape, athletes engaged in strategies, sometimes excessive or extreme, to try to attain an in-shape athlete body. At times, these behaviors were at the prompting of coaches or parents. Unfortunately, this emphasis on the ideal "female athlete body" (i.e., strong, toned but thin) led some participants to engage in body or uniform manipulation in an attempt to conform to the ideal female athlete body standard. This is consistent with recent reports of clinical and subclinical disordered eating and body manipulation of collegiate athletes (Greenleaf, Petrie, Carter, & Reel, 2009). As a basketball player said:

At my JUCO, my freshman year my coach wanted me to lose 20 pounds. I was at 135, he wanted me at like 120 ... he said I needed to so I could get faster ... I would have to try to do something on my own. And then I started taking diet pills just to help and that messed me up, too. Cause they were like more caffeine than anything. I had taken one before practice, I had ate but not so much and it made me feel dizzy and real jittery and stuff so I couldn't practice because it made me feel that way. And then he found out I was taking those and he got mad at me for taking those, and I was like, "Well, you wanted me to lose the weight, so how do you want me to do this?" (basketball #2)

A volleyball player stated, "I definitely am always trying to lose weight, especially when it's about to be volleyball season cause it's just, you're wearing less clothes" (volleyball #3). Similarly, a softball player said, "Since softball pants are very tight, and they're form fitting [and] show off your body. You want smaller legs ... to look better in your uniform. Yeah, I've lost weight before" (softball #2). Coaches' critical comments toward participants' bodies focused on appearance and performance in both public and private settings, exacerbating participants' desires to manipulate their bodies and present them as feminine and athletic. This finding is consistent with previous researchers (Coppola, Ward, & Freysinger, 2014; Muscat & Long, 2008) suggesting that coaches play a role in creating stress around uniform-wearing. However, it is also important to note that while multiple female athletes in the current study reported using tactics to actively manipulate their bodies to impact their sport performance to fit the female athlete body norm, others reported hearing comments like those from others but did not act on those comments.

Temporal experiences of uniform. In the fourth category in this domain, temporal experiences of uniform, NCAA DII athletes reported that their body awareness and self-consciousness carried over into their collegiate sport experience. Many felt as though they were "on display" for opponents and spectators in their uniforms during collegiate competition and felt self-conscious in the tighter, more revealing collegiate uniforms. A volleyball player spoke about her experiences of feeling "in the spotlight" during games, stating,

What if people were standing behind me, or who was standing to the side, or who was standing over here. I was most worried about where everyone was standing ... Because I'm like, "My legs are showing over here, my legs are showing over here." (volleyball #3)

Similarly, a softball player recalled her self-consciousness on the field during games:

Even being on base sometimes I would find myself doing something wrong just because my mind's not focused on the right thing. Like, I should be focused on the game or stealing a base; I would be on first base and not taking lead because I would be so concerned about how I looked. I just felt like I was too thick in the midst of playing, (softball #3)

Feeling like they were in the "spotlight" or "on display," especially related to the tighter and/ or more revealing aspects of their uniform, heightened participants' awareness of certain body parts; this created a situation where their mind was not on the things that were important to think about for their sport participation. This is consistent with experiences of self-surveillance and self-monitoring indicative of internalized body objectification; moreover, this preoccupation with others' perceptions can lead to decreased attention on performance (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). In addition, participants' experiences differed based on how comfortable they felt in their uniforms in front of spectators. This is also consistent with previous sport psychology literature (Krane, Waldron, et al. 2001; Krane et al., 2004; Steinfeldt et al., 2013). For example, Krane, Waldron et ah (2001) found that body image for female athletes and exercisers is culture-bound; they examined the ways that female athletes perceived and experienced the female athletic body based on the influence of the social context. In the current study, because of the revealing nature of some uniforms, participants reported feeling "on display" or "in the spotlight" in front of spectators, which influenced the ways they attempted to control how they self-presented (e.g., dieting, excessive exercise, uniform manipulation) in an athletic setting. In this way, female athletes attempted to match self-, coach-, and spectator-imposed standards to display a fit and in-shape "female athlete body" in this developmental sport stage. Because of this preoccupation, they focused their attention on their bodies during competition instead of on their sport performance.

Domain IV: Advice Based on Experience

The final domain represented information provided by participants that could serve as advice or recommendations for the general female athlete population about their bodies and sport uniforms. Two categories were constructed from the data in this domain: (a) don't worry about your body--just do your sport] and (b) embrace your strong, athlete body. These recommendations emerged as participants reflected upon their experiences with their body and sport uniforms throughout their sporting career. Interestingly, participants' recommendations were often areas that they themselves struggled with at some point during their sport participation.

Don't worry about your body--just do your sport. In the first category, don't worry about your body--just do your sport, NCAA DII female athletes encouraged other female athletes to focus on their sport and performance rather than worry about how they looked and felt in their uniforms. As a volleyball player said, "I think you shouldn't be that self-conscious. Just do your sport, you know?" (volleyball #2). Other participants cited performance as more important than how one looks in a uniform--a softball player stated, "As long as in sports you are able to do what you're supposed to be doing, it really doesn't matter what you look like" (softball #1). Similarly, a cross-country runner mentioned, "I don't think it matters what you look like as long as you're performing" (cross-country #2).

Embrace your strong athlete body. In the second category, embrace your strong athlete body, participants urged other female athletes to take pride in their athletic bodies rather than trying to conform to gender stereotypes that may not be conducive to sport performance. A cross-country runner said:

I mean I think for the most part you should just feel comfortable in your own body. You know, I mean, you are how you are. Yeah, there are things that you can do, you know, like eating right and training and stuff. But, I've never felt inferior or superior to anybody else, (cross-country #1)

In addition, participants provided advice such as to embrace one's bodies even though it may be difficult. A softball player stated:

I work out to look athletic in general because my body is not, I'm not a size 2; I'm not. I don't have skinny arms. I was just always a thicker girl; so, I kind of learned to embrace that, and my sister's going through that right now. She doesn't like when people tell her, "Oh, you're so big," or "You [have] such big muscles." She would prefer that people call her toned or something like that. And, I tell her, "That's just the way your body is, you know? You look athletic; you look really strong. That's something you just, you should embrace that...." And I just think, that's just the way my body is, so why not take advantage and make it look athletic, so that in my uniform I look strong, (softball #5)

These few female athletes in the study made a point to voice their opinions about the ways in which other collegiate female athletes should view their bodies in sport. Importantly, the advice provided was unsolicited (i.e., not a component of the semi-structured interview guide), opening the possibility that these athletes viewed the interviews as an opportunity for their advice to be transmitted to other young female athletes.

In Domain IV, participants appear to be engaging in a reflective loop (Storm, 2016) where they are exploring their own intuition and boundaries about their bodies in relation to the sport they play as well as to societal gender nonns. As Storm (2016) suggests, "The Reflective Loop can be used to explore ways to renegotiate a boundary, consider how to respond to emotions that arise, or used to maintain a challenging boundary" (p. 56). Reflective loops can be taught to female athletes so that they can do a corporeality check on themselves such as: What feelings, thoughts, and emotions arise when I think about my athlete body? Are there particular gender stereotypes that I am buying into? And, what kind of athlete body is good for my sport? In this way, female athletes can be taught--and teach each other --to engage in self-care by reflecting on past experiences related to their athlete bodies that were both positive and negative, and then formulating a plan for how they will deal with negative events in the future (Storm, 2016). This can also lead to empowerment and social change for other female athletes in their environment.

Limitations and Future Directions

It should be noted that while NCAA DII female athletes from four sports were interviewed for the current study, they were gathered from a single South Central university. Therefore, in future research, athletes from varying sports and competitive levels and demographic regions should be interviewed to see what their experience of uniforms has been. In addition, the information gained from the participants in this study may have been limited by the use of two interviewers. Logistical and team considerations (e.g., starters versus non-starters, athletes in-season versus out-of-season, tenure on the team) may be additional factors to examine to further understand athletes' perceptions and experiences of their sport uniforms. In the current study, athletes participated in aesthetic individual, aesthetic team, and nonaesthetic team sports; and future researchers could ascertain the perceptions and experiences of athletes in nonaesthetic individual sports concerning their sport uniforms. Moreover, future research may be fortified by an examination of men's perceptions and experiences of their sport uniforms in isolation or in comparison to those of female athletes. Retrospective accounts regarding how participants experienced their body and sport uniforms from youth to adult sport participation were also used in the current study, and there are many factors that can influence recall of sport uniforms; future studies should extend this research by gathering the perceptions of female athletes at each of the developmental stages using a cross-sectional or longitudinal approach. Moreover, all sport constituents--including athletes, coaches, parents, and administrators at differing competitive levels--should be interviewed to determine who makes the decision to employ gender-marked uniforms, at what age and developmental levels, and how this decision affects female athlete self-presentation strategies. Because athletes in the current study mentioned discontinuing certain sports due to their discomfort with tighter and more revealing uniforms, future researchers could also interview those athletes who opted out of certain sports due to gender-marked uniforms.


It appears that the existence of the female athlete paradox (Krane et al. 2004) may begin when puberty and gender-marked uniforms align with the pressures for female athletes to conform to both the female athlete body and the societal female body ideal. It seems that female athletes must make a choice when this combination of events occurs to either "normalize" the process of accepting a gendered (e.g., "feminine" and form-fitting) uniform so that they can continue sport participation or discontinue sport participation due to discomfort with exposing additional skin or body in the gendered uniform. Athletes in the current study also reported struggling to focus on competition when they were concerned about their body and uniform. This has obvious negative performance consequences for not only athletes but coaches and other support personnel as well.


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E. Earlynn Lauer

Western Illinois University

Rebecca A. Zakrajsek & Leslee A. Fisher

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Matthew P. Bejar

Mt. Mercy University

Tiana McCowan

Oklahoma Panhandle State University

Scott B. Martin

University of North Texas

Justine Vosloo

Ithica College

Address correspondence to: E. Earlynn Lauer, Ph.D., Western Illinois University, 1 University Circle, Brophy Hall 221, Macomb, Illinois 61455. Email:
Table 1

Summary of Domains, Categories, Core Ideas, and Frequencies

Domains/Categories             Illustrative Core Idea

Domain 1: Prepubescent perceptions regarding uniforms

a) Uniforms were a non-issue   Players did not think about their
                               uniform or body nor did they care how
                               they looked during prepubescent sport
b) Uniforms were comfortable   Uniforms were comfortable because they
                               were loose and baggy (e.g., longer
c) Gender-marked uniforms      Uniforms during prepubescent sport
                               participation were less gender-marked
                               (e.g. t-shirts, gym shorts) than adult

Domain 2: "Transition to puberty" perceptions regarding uniforms

a) Discomfort with more        Players reported a continuum of comfort;
   restrictive, revealing,     feelings of discomfort were emphasized
   gender-appropriate          with more restrictive, revealing, and
   uniforms                    gendered uniforms (i.e., volleyball)
                               and feelings of comfort were described
                               with less restrictive and revealing
                               uniforms (i.e., basketball).
b) Body comparisons based      Players compared themselves to
   on gender norms             teammates and competitors based on body
                               size and uniform fit that conformed to
                               gender norms.
c) Uniform manipulations       Players altered uniforms (i.e., wore
                               multiple bras, adjusted shorts) before
                               or during play to feel more comfortable
                               with their body and uniform.
d) Normalization and           Players acclimated to and accepted their
   acceptance                  uniforms (e.g., uniforms were
                               "normalized") as the norm and/or

Domain 3: College perceptions regarding uniforms

a) Confident when fit and      Players experienced more confidence
   inshape: the "female        when they engaged in sport and
   athlete body"               perceived they had achieved an
                               in-shape female athlete body.
b) Significant others'         Players experienced comments from
   comments regarding          coaches, parents, and spectators about
   body and uniform            their look in their uniforms, weight,
                               and body shape. Comments made some
                               players self-conscious about their
c) Manipulation of body to     Athletes engaged in body manipulation
   be fit and in-shape         (e.g., excessive exercise, diet pills,
                               dieting) to conform to the fit and
                               in-shape female athlete body.
d) Temporal experience of      Athletes felt self-conscious in their
unifonn                        revealing uniforms when they were "in
                               the spotlight" during games and in
                               front of spectators.

Domain 4: Advice based on experience about uniforms

a) Don't worry about your      Players gave recommendations for other
   body-Just do your sport    athletes to focus on their sport
                               performance rather than their bodies
                               in their uniforms and to simply
                               compete without worry (i.e., just do
                               your sport).
b) Embrace your strong,        Female athletes gave advice to others
   athlete body                to feel comfortable in and embrace
                               their athletic and strong looking

Domains/Categories             Frequency

Domain 1: Prepubescent perceptions regarding uniforms
a) Uniforms were a non-issue   Typical

b) Uniforms were comfortable   Variant

c) Gender-marked uniforms      Variant

Domain 2: "Transition to puberty" perceptions regarding uniforms

a) Discomfort with more        General
   restrictive, revealing,

b) Body comparisons based      Typical
   on gender norms

c) Uniform manipulations       Variant

d) Normalization and           Typical

Domain 3: College perceptions regarding uniforms

a) Confident when fit and      Variant
   inshape: the "female
   athlete body"

b) Significant others'         Typical
   comments regarding
   body and uniform

c) Manipulation of body to     Variant
   be fit and in-shape

d) Temporal experience of      Variant

Domain 4: Advice based on experience about uniforms
a) Don't worry about your      Variant
   body- Just do your sport

b) Embrace your strong,        Variant
   athlete body

Note. General (all or all but one the cases); Typical (more than
half the cases); Variant (half the cases or less).
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Author:Lauer, E. Earlynn; Fisher, Rebecca A. Zakrajsek &.Leslee A.; Bejar, Matthew P.; McCowan, Tiana; Mart
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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