"We women all want to feel good in our skin. In the sport of gymnastics, it gets harder and harder as you grow out of your child's body."
Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 29, 2021. It has since been updated.
Technically, Sarah Voss wasn't breaking any rules. But the German gymnast's full-body suit at the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships was definitely a step out of the norm as up until then, women and girls had only covered their legs in international competition for religious reasons. Voss, however, had an important reason for defying convention. According to BBC, the German federation (DTB) revealed that Voss and her teammates Kim Bui and Elisabeth Seitz—who also donned full-body suits during the women's all-around final—were taking a stand against "sexualization in gymnastics." The federation added that the issue had become all the more important to prevent sexual abuse.
"We hope gymnasts uncomfortable in the usual outfits will feel emboldened to follow our example," said Voss. "We women all want to feel good in our skin. In the sport of gymnastics, it gets harder and harder as you grow out of your child's body. As a little girl, I didn't see the tight gym outfits as such a big deal. But when puberty began, when my period came, I began feeling increasingly uncomfortable." Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live's Naga Munchetty show, Voss revealed that the project had been a year in the making.
Under the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) rules, competitors are permitted to wear a "one-piece leotard with full-length legs - hip to ankle"—provided it is of elegant design. "To do splits and jumps, sometimes the leotards are not covering everything, sometimes they slip and that's why we invented a new form of leotard so that everyone feels safe around competitions and training," Voss explained. "Every time you don't feel safe it's distracting you from what you want to perform. I think that feeling safe and not thinking about what other people can or cannot see is quite relieving when you can compete like that."
"Some girls quit this beautiful sport [because of having to wear leotards] so that is why this is a great option for everyone to stay in the sport they love and don't think about anything else about their body - just about their performance," she added. The German federation echoed Voss's message saying that sport and gymnastics should be fields where female athletes felt comfortable in their clothing at all times. Voss's teammate, Seitz, said that wearing a full-body suit meant having one less thing to worry about as there was no risk of revealing anything by accident. She revealed that everyone trained in full-body outfits and ultimately reached a point where they asked themselves why they should not do the same in competition.
Voss hopes her team's example will motivate others to follow their lead. She said that while she had never herself been abused, as role models for younger athletes and she and her colleagues want to encourage everyone to stand up for themselves. "It does not say that everyone should do it, it just says that everyone can do whatever they want," said Voss. "If they feel safe they can wear a normal leotard if they like it. If there is a certain point they think they would feel better in a long leotard, then they should do it. For me, it doesn't say I have to wear a long leotard in the future every time. It depends on how I am feeling and how I'd like to perform."
British-Jamaican gymnast Danusia Francis praised the move and said that the suits "give the power of choice back" to the athletes and could "open the door" for more women in the sport. Dutch Gymnastics has also praised the step with a spokesman pointing out that judges had often deducted points when a competitor had tried to make her leotard more comfortable during their performance.