During the 2010 Women’s Boxing World Championships in Barbados, the sport’s governing body (the International Amateur Boxing Association, or AIBA) handed out athletic skirts to semifinalists and finalists. Many boxers and sports commentators felt the move tacitly implied the women should be wearing more feminine garb in the ring, instead of the customary shorts and tank tops. Their suspicions were ratcheted up when the AIBA suggested competitors wear skirts during the Pan American Games this past October, in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The AIBA won’t admit that they’re trying to feminize women boxers. The association’s president, Ching-Kuo Wu, claims his association is merely trying to differentiate them from their male counterparts: “I have heard many times, people say, ‘We can’t tell the difference between the men and the women,’ especially on TV, since they’re in the same uniforms and are wearing headgear.” The subtext to what Wu’s saying seems to be that more people will tune in to watch women fight if they look more like, well, women.
This week, AIBA officials meet in Bangkok to discuss the association’s various dealings—including a proposal that women boxers wear skirts during competition. The proposal comes at an important time in sport. Women’s boxing is set to make its Olympic debut this summer in London, and currently only three weight classes are competing, even though men compete in 10 weight classes. More viewers could eventually lead to more weight classes being added to future Olympic rosters.
But there’s no evidence that more people will tune in if women wear skirts, and furthermore, many women boxers find the entire issue frustrating. "My personal opinion is if you want to wear a skirt it should be a choice, it shouldn't be forced upon anyone," Natasha Jones, a lightweight who won a silver medal at the European Championships last fall, told Reuters. At that competition, only Poland and Romania’s fighters seemed to be taking their cues from the AIBA—their boxers wore skirts in the ring.
Queen Underwood, the U.S. favorite to win gold in the lightweight category, says the idea of wearing a skirt while boxing is distracting—she hasn’t worn a skirt in years and felt self-conscious wondering what she looked like. Sports psychiatrist Carole Oglesby, former president of WomenSport International, echoes Underwood’s sentiments. “I’ve read [the boxers] say things like, ‘I just don’t think I’d be comfortable.’ I think that’s a mild way of saying this is embarrassing,” Oglesby says. “From a performance perspective, that’s a completely unnecessary barrier to deal with.”
Forcing women boxers into skirts won’t solve the sport’s publicity problem, but women’s boxing still needs to increase ratings to get those weight classes added. Publicity is key to this mission, with a particular emphasis on the boxers’ personal narratives.
India’s a good template for the way women’s boxing can take hold in the rest of the world. Their women’s team is expected to bring home one of the country’s only medals in London. It’s such a part of the cultural consciousness that a movie is being produced about the star boxer, 28-year-old mother of twins Mary Kom, who rose from a poor upbringing to become a five-time world champion.
In the United States, Underwood is a former pipe fitter from Seattle and a victim of child abuse. She is supporting herself through fundraising to get to the Olympics. Hers is an inspirational story, and her success has little to do with femininity. The more audiences are asked to focus on the fight (both in the ring and out), the more audiences will tune in—with or without a skirt.