Sitting on mats beside the trampoline at the gymnastics club championships, we had a clear view of the floor exercise. Girls took turns flipping, skipping and rolling to music. Seated across the floor from us was the judge, clipboard balanced on knee, pen in hand. She gave a slight nod as each girl saluted her at the start of the routine. Her eyes followed the movements, flicking down to her clipboard as she made brief notes, then back up to take in the performance. And a final gentle nod as the girl turned her way and bowed before leaving the floor. The judge’s face expressing earnestness and concentration.
It was the turn of the daughter of the mother sitting in front of us. In her first year of gymnastics, but with eight years of dancing experience, her routine was simple but graceful. As the girl completed a cartwheel in the middle of the floor, from our vantage, she stood for a moment with the judge directly in the background. The judge’s serious mien snapped suddenly into a look of Frankie Howerd-style camp outrage. We had seen the expression and laughed. We had also seen what had elicited the abrupt loss of the judge’s calm, objective visage.
The average person carries out a minor adjustment to their undergarments, at least four times each hour* – more often if active. But in the world of gymnastics, any such gesture of self-consciousness means a points deduction. It’s not just the pants: flicking of the hair is cracked down on just as hard. But it’s the penalty pants point that is so at odds with the need to get girls involved in physical activity – currently popularised by Sport England’s, This Girl Can campaign.
At the annual club competition, the girls are instructed to wear their leotards bare-legged. I understand the need for the outlines of the gymnast’s body to be clearly visible as maintaining the correct the angle of limbs to trunk is part of the control they seek to achieve. Loose clothing could also impede the gymnast and potentially endanger her. I just don’t understand why so much flesh should have to be shown. Leggings would enable the competitor’s form to be assessed, without them feeling self-conscious about their bare lower half, which causes the nervous tugging at leotards. Male gymnasts, it’s worth noting, wear shorts or even long trousers.
This Girl Can has a genuinely laudable aim: “it is here to inspire women to wiggle, jiggle, move and prove that judgement is a barrier that can be overcome.” Gymnasts in a competition are, of course, offering themselves up to judgement. I don’t feel any great respect for a judgement that places such an onus on a pre-teen or teenage girl’s ability to resist the temptation to pull her leotard down over her bare legs.
* Made up statistic.