At the 2021 European Gymnastics Championships in Basel, Switzerland, last week, three members of the German women’s team debuted more than sky-high tricks: First Sarah Voss in the qualifying competition, and then Elisabeth Seitz and Kim Bui in the all-around final (where they placed fifth and seventh respectively) performed their routines not in leotards, but in stunning unitards. Like its legless cousin, a gymnastics unitard is a spandex get-up, bedazzled with a metric ton of Swarovski crystals—but, unlike the traditional leotard, a unitard extends to the athlete’s ankles. This, the Germans explained, was in direct rebuke to what they called Sexualisierung in the sport, and while the International Gymnastics Federation permits this style already (usually for religious reasons), on a marquee team in a high-profile competition, it was a revolutionary sight.
Gymnastics attire is a fraught subject, as gymnasts are elite athletes and deserve to be observed and admired above all for their abilities, not their bodies. Furthermore, many in the sport, from the neighborhood gym all the way up to the international elite level, are underage. As such, it should go without saying that it’s especially inappropriate to focus on these athletes’ bodies. And yet—as Jerry Seinfeld put it in his 1993 tome SeinLanguage when he suggested that corporate sponsors affix logos on leotard posteriors for maximum visibility—it is hard to ignore that the standard uniform for regulation competition is revealing.
What the leotard reveals, however, is not just legs.
While the wrenching exposé of sexual abuse forced the sport to adopt some hard-fought progress toward offering its athletes dignity, comfort, and autonomy, when it comes to valuing performance over aesthetics, women’s artistic gymnastics still lags behind other sports. Case in point: Track and field, swimming, and even rhythmic gymnastics all now enjoy the widespread popularity of legs covered in high-tech fabric, thus allowing athletes to concentrate fully on their sport (and, in some cases, improving their outcomes). And, depending on the event, male gymnasts have also been competing in stirrup pants or shorts over their singlets (that’s a male version of the leotard; now you know) for decades.
So the unitard on a high-profile women’s team is a revolutionary development, and not just for providing a new and more comfortable competition option. It’s also a belated rejoinder to the conventions of a sport that has, often to devastating ends, valued a particular sort of feminine aesthetic over the autonomy of the athletes themselves.
The full-legged Turnanzug’s premiere brought a torrent of praise from German gymnastics fandom, with comments on Seitz’s Instagram post proclaiming the new togs so toll (great), mega (also great), klasse (Germans have a lot of words for great), and schon lange überfällig (long overdue). An international shower of press coverage followed, highlighting an official tweet from the Deutscher Turner-Bund (the German Gymnastics Federation) that described the decision to wear bodysuits as gegen Sexualisierung im Turnen, or “against sexualization in gymnastics.”
To be fair, that phrase does lose a bit in translation. To some, it may appear that the German gymnasts believed leotards are somehow to blame for the sport’s sexual abuses—but that’s not fair: Teutonic bluntness belies the nuance with which the gymnasts explained their choice (and it was their choice). Seitz wrote on Instagram that this was a symbolic gesture “for all gymnasts who might feel uncomfortable or even sexualized in normal leotards,” and Bui wrote in English on Instagram, “We want to encourage all gymnasts around the world to be able to wear this if they want to feel better!” Voss, meanwhile, told the broadcaster ZDF that leotards didn’t bother her as a child, “but when puberty began, when my period came, I began feeling increasingly uncomfortable.”
So none of these athletes—ages 27 (Seitz), 32 (Bui), and 21 (Voss)—believe that the unitard will solve sexual assault in the sport or, more importantly, that uncovered legs cause it. They simply believe, as Seitz wrote on Instagram, that a gymnast herself should “decide what kind of attire she feels best in.”
And while one could argue that a perfectly fitted traditional leo—as it’s known in gym parlance—can look elegant, I can tell you from experience that they are not usually comfortable. Long-sleeved leos are not about what’s best for doing gymnastics. They’re about what is “best” for being looked at while doing gymnastics. The long sleeves make arms look more graceful, and therefore uneven bar releases look bigger, and dance elements on beam and floor appear more fluid. (They also blur the gymnasts’ muscles, making it harder to see how jacked they are.) The hip cutaways to bare legs, on the other hand, make gymnasts’ legs look longer—and they also happen to make it easier for judges to identify even the tiniest form break. All this is why the leotard has been, as Dvora Meyers’ encyclopedic history of the garment explains, the standard since athletes started going upside-down.
Voss and her teammates’ statements about “feeling better,” even in German, also contain subtext that is obvious for anyone familiar with the sport. As someone who spent upward of 6,500 of my most formative hours covered in chalk, I can tell you that gymnasts never train in competition-style leos. In practice, gymnasts wear almost exclusively sleeveless leos or fitted tank tops paired with spandex shorts. Long sleeves are a deal breaker because during a six-hour-plus workout one tends to, you know, perspire—but it’s the shorts on the bottom that are crucial.
Because here is the immutable truth, as every gymnast ever in the history of gymnastics can tell you: Bottoms of some sort obscure and prevent wedgies. And Gymnastics. Causes. Wedgies.
And yet: In the sport’s formidable Code of Points, there is a deduction (anywhere from 0.20 to 0.50, depending on the severity of the “attire” or “behavioural” violation) for a gymnast adjusting a garment any time between the salutes to the judges that signify the official start and end of her judged exercise. That is: There’s no inscribed deduction in gymnastics for getting the inevitable wedgie—but there is a deduction, sometimes hefty, for fixing your wedgie. This means that gymnasts not only do painful things like glue leos to their skin, but that they are, at times, essentially forced to complete routines with one or both buttocks hanging out. This is especially the case in college, where the combination of higher-cut garments and more mature bodies means that every single NCAA meet is a booty-fest we all see, but rarely talk about.
And as elite gymnastics continues to become more of a grown woman’s sport (the GOAT Simone Biles is 24; Canadian Ellie Black is 25; Britain’s Becky Downie is 29; Uzbek vaulting legend Oksana Chusovitina is 45), these grown women’s grown bodies do happen to be more wedgie-prone than frequently prepubescent compatriots—sometimes. But at the same time, and more importantly, the athletes, as adults, may have less patience for being told that their rear ends must stay exposed during routines.
If a single American gymnast competed a single event in a unitard in Tokyo, hundreds of thousands of younger gymnasts would emulate her.
This may sound like much ado about wedgies, but any elite athlete will tell you that they want to optimize their comfort and minimize their self-consciousness in performance—whether that comes in the form of a “creeping” leo (as we used to call them), or having to worry about waxing, or fretting (quite anxiously, in my case) about your period, or just not wanting your crotch quite so prominent on international television.
Any amount of discomfort or self-consciousness that distracts or prevents athletes from performing at their best is simply unacceptable. Can you imagine every NBA player, for instance, being expected—or even required—to play every single game in uncomfortable clothes or risk a technical foul? There’s a reason they don’t wear those tiny little shorts anymore, after all.
For all these reasons, the unitard is a viable and elegant alternative option. Seitz, Voss, and Bui looked resplendent in theirs, and I hope to see more in the coming years—on everyone who wants to wear one.
For those who decry the loss of “the lines” (gymnastics-speak for “appropriately slender legs that I can see unimpeded”) and the iota of blurring a bespandexed gam may afford a form break, it’s worth remembering that the demise of the “perfect 10” in favor of the open-ended scoring system means that difficulty has taken precedence over execution in gymnastics for 15 years. Thus, the days of elite gymnasts needing to display perfect lines are—much like the Soviet-era industrial-strength leo monstrosities with the visible digging waistbands—a relic.
The option to wear longer competition attire is not just about “modesty” per se, especially not if one views that word in the evangelically inflected sense that can cause widespread unwarranted shame and that puts the onus on the wearer not to “defraud” male gazers. If a gymnast is comfortable competing in a thong, I think she should be allowed to do that too. (That’s currently verboten, unless you count all the wedgies.) So, though I admire the German gymnasts’ statements, the glorious unitard is not just about fighting sexualization. It’s also simply about the option to wear performance fabrics just like many other athletes do, and in doing so to feel confident, empowered, and comfortable.
Furthermore, while the German gymnasts are high-profile enough that their duds will be the talk of Tokyo (Seitz and Bui will likely make the all-around final and could place in the top 10), it would be even more powerful to see the unitard option on the overwhelming gold medal favorites: the U.S. I guarantee you that if a single American gymnast competed a single event in a unitard in Tokyo, hundreds of thousands of younger gymnasts would emulate her. And not to single-handedly “desexualize” the sport, mind you—that’s not, nor has it ever been, the athletes’ responsibility—but simply to provide multiple options that center the gymnast, and her comfort, rather than the aesthetic experience of those watching her.