By Cali Morrison Carss
This past December, the state of Alaska held its high school girls state championships for swimming. Breckynn Willis, a star swimmer for Diamond High School, swam the 100 fly event and won her heat, her section of the race. This would add a number of points to her team’s overall score and place her high in the state rankings. However, neither of those things happened. An official watching the race disqualified Brecklynn Willis because of her swimsuit, as the official said, “not fitting her properly.” On the record, Willis never won and her time didn’t count. Her coaches have since described both Willis and her younger sister, who also swims, as “curvy” girls who would have stood out because of their body shape. Her sister, their mother said has also had problems with the same official. Although the decision has since been overturned due to the public outrage, the fact that it ever happened raises eyebrows at the current policies against girls’ clothing in swimming and the outdated perception of swimsuit design.
Many officials and coaches have backed the argument that this is not only an issue of sexism, but one of racism as well, given that the sisters are mixed-race. A coach a West High School in Anchorage, Alaska who was at the meet wrote a post about the disqualification, saying, “They [the sisters] are being targeted not because they are wearing their suits to be scandalous, thus inspiring immorality among other young people, but rather because their ample hips, tiny waists, full chests, and dark complexions look different than their willowy, thin, and mostly pallid teammates.” This point is further emphasized by other coaches, including Willis’ who note that the suits would naturally fit the girl’s body type differently and shouldn’t be a breach of the rules, nor a reason to disqualify her. The same coach, Lauren Langford, continued her post talking about the parents she’s seen oppose the girls, some saying “that for the sake of their sons, the mothers of these young ladies should cover up their daughters.” That standard becomes even more ridiculous when you consider the fact that swimsuit aren’t meant to cover much. Especially racing suits which are streamlined in order to aid in speed, like the one Willis was wearing.
This event has now brought the diagram of an ‘appropriate’ girls swimsuit that officials use to judge suits and the one Willis’ suit was most likely compared to into question. The diagram the National Federation of State High School Association uses to determine an appropriate suit for girls doesn’t even look like the suits made and worn now. As a swimmer myself, I have found myself comparing the suits my friends and I wear to practice, as well as our team suits. We all have swimsuits from a popular girls swimsuit website called Jolyn. Their suits are good quality and comfortable, but they don’t look much like the diagram presented by swimming officials. The diagram is ineffective for judging new suits because that is simply not how they are made anymore. Suits are higher cut now and racing suits are more streamlined. The one Willis was wearing is nearly identical to a suit any female swimmer would wear. The standard for girls swimsuits in this instance is clearly impossible to live up to. It’s inevitable that a suit will shift when racing and no one is going to stop in the middle of a race to fix it.
The official calling the DQ wasn’t thinking about the way swimsuits can fit different body types or the possibility of the suit moving after Willis dove into the water. And while the decision has since been determined as discriminatory based on the Anchorage School District’s investigation, this official while not be decertified because of the issue.
These rules unfairly target girls solely based on their bodies in a situation where they can’t control what happens. When her suit shifted, she wasn’t in a place to focus on and fix that. She was racing. Unfair standards like these tell girls that in order to compete, their suits must fit over their bodies in one specific way. When, in this day and age, we know that having one diagram of how a swimsuit should fit is not realistic or sensible. This issue gets concerning because it could discourage young girls who will see these stories and pictures and know that their suits simply don’t fit their bodies like “they should”. It can easily build up an internalized expectation for young female swimmers. It’s a pressure enforced by the officials behind the sport, whether intended or not, that makes girls scrutinize their bodies based on the rules set by the sport they love.