'Hair can be a huge logistical barrier to entering the pool for some communities,' Alice Dearing, the first Black swimmer to represent Great Britain at an Olympic level, said.
The International Swimming Federation (FINA), the water-sports world governing body, regulates the specifications for swimwear for the pool and open water swimming competitions, including the Olympics. Citing a regulation that specifies that the shape of the swimming cap "shall follow the natural form of the head," last year FINA opposed the use of a cap specifically designed for Black hair. The policy was criticized as culturally insensitive, and FINA has now reversed the ban, according to The New York Times. As a result of the new policy, the Soul Cap headwear is now listed as approved equipment. Stating the importance of all aquatic athletes having access to the appropriate swimwear, Brent Nowicki, the federation’s executive director, said in a statement, “Promoting diversity and inclusivity is at the heart of FINA’s work.”
The London-based soul cap has officially been approved for competitive swimming. Just last year Alice Dearing, the first Black female swimmer to represent Britain in the Olympics, was told that she couldn’t wear the cap during her competition at the Tokyo Olympics. pic.twitter.com/XlbzCjweds— EBONY MAGAZINE (@EBONYMag) September 8, 2022
Just a week before the ban on the swimming cap was announced by FINA, British swimmer and co-founder of the Black Swimming Association, Alice Dearing, had qualified to become the first Black female swimmer to compete on Team Great Britain at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. In an essay expressing her frustration, disagreement and anguish about FINA's decision, Dearing wrote, "Hair can be a huge logistical barrier to entering the pool for some communities." She further stated, "For black women, our hair is a large part of our identity and how we express ourselves." She explained the strenuous swim cap routine for swimmers with long hair in the same essay stating how "'standard' caps do not offer the space needed" to fit Black people's hair in the swimming community. "It sent the wrong message to swimmers and the world, telling us that the sport can only accommodate a certain version of yourself," she wrote.
This has also been the experience of Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed, the founders of Soul Cap. In 2017, when Chapman and Ahmed were at their local pool for swimming lessons, they met a Black woman with Afro hair struggling with the size of her cap, according to Vogue. When they spoke with the other Black women, all of them relayed accounts of struggles with swimming caps made for white hair. The pair created the product with the hope of encouraging more swimmers to participate in competitions. After Soul Cap received approval from FINA, the brand stated that "it’s a success that affects the entire swimming community." But for Chapman and Ahmed, it was a "long road getting here, with plenty of ups and downs on the way." When FINA rejected their application for getting Soul Cap as one of the approved lists of competitive swimwear, Chapman said, “The decision is an extension of these cultural barriers.”
The International Swimming Federation dropped its opposition to a type of cap designed for Black hair, a year after critics of the policy said it was culturally insensitive and created an unnecessary barrier to the sport. https://t.co/uMtWBWfsRv— NYT Sports (@NYTSports) September 7, 2022
These cultural barriers are also evident as there is a lack of diversity in swimming as a sport. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of U.S. African American children, compared to 40% of white children, have little-to-no swimming ability, reports Reuters. Swimming is also a lifesaving skill. A 2020 study found that Black children between the ages of 5 and 14 are 2.6 times more likely to drown than white children. "A systematic exclusion from public pools and other forms of water activities over time has led to a lack of cultural capital involving aquatics among black families," states the study.
"This new approval by FINA is a huge step in the right direction – bringing inclusive swimwear into competitive swimming, and helping to bring down some of the obstacles that are keeping swimmers away from the sport," stated Soul Cap. In her Instagram post, Dearing expressed her happiness after the announcement by FINA and said, "It sets a precedent for the sport; for choice, inclusivity, and acceptance. Giving swimmers the option is what this is all about. Self-expression & love." Dearing says that she is now "relieved and excited" about the decision to include Soul Cap for use in elite competition adding, "I know just how seismic this change will be."