Beach issues: USC’s Caitlin Cummings examines “battle of bikinis vs. bodies”

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Caitlin Cummings USC beach 1/16/2021-Caitlin Cummings-USC beach volleyball
Caitlin Cummings passes during a USC beach volleyball practice/John McGillen photo

Caitlin Cummings, who played at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco and the Santa Cruz Beach Volleyball and Kleos Beach Volleyball clubs, is a freshman at USC. She was a member of VolleyballMag.com’s inaugural beach girls Fab 30 list last June.
The 6-foot-1 Cummings first wrote about this as a senior in high school, telling us, “I decided to look into the toxic culture surrounding women’s beach volleyball that contributes to body image issues and disordered eating. My research yielded shocking results, and I think that this is a topic that continues to be at the forefront of player’s minds, yet gets swept under the rug by media outlets as athletes continue to struggle.”

Caitlin Cummings

When we’re playing beach volleyball, passersby may stop to admire the athletes as we jump, sprint, and dive. But they may not be privy to the internal battle many of us are facing at the hands of the sport’s uniform standards: 

The battle of bikinis vs. bodies.

To see how deep-rooted body image issues have become in the sport, I looked at many studies regarding body image issues in female athletes as a whole. However, since most of these studies were not specific to beach volleyball players, I decided to conduct a survey of my own.

I asked 35 female beach volleyball players of various age groups and skill levels a series of questions regarding the intersection between body image and beach volleyball.

The results were horrifying, but not surprising. We’ll get to that in a bit.

Understand that when people watch beach volleyball, they may not be privy to the internal battle many of the players are facing at the hands of the sport’s uniform standards.

When I fell in love with beach volleyball at age13, I dreamed of the elusive Los Angeles sand as it slipped between my toes and I dreamed of playing against the highly esteemed “L.A. girls” who everyone in my Northern California niche idolized.

As a 14-year-old, my L.A. fantasy was fulfilled when I earned a coveted spot in the USA High Performance program. 

When I reported for training, I received my practice/game attire: A small, black bikini top and an even smaller bottom with the letters “USA” plastered across the fabric. This was the uniform that all 50 girls in the program were required to wear, regardless of whether they felt comfortable or not.

Female players wearing bikinis is a pattern that extends far beyond this program. In juniors tournaments, there are no rules surrounding attire, yet almost every girl wears a bikini. 

When I frequented the juniors scene, I noticed a stigma placed on girls who wore more conservative bikinis or, God forbid, shorts or a t-shirt. Girls on the beach often threw around lingo describing those who did this as insecure, or weird. On several occasions, my teammates have expressed that they underestimated competition based solely on the way they were dressed, immediately equating more coverage to lack of skill. 

This creates a certain pressure for girls to wear garments that will make them fit in, rather than what will make them feel comfortable.

It is understandable that a uniform would consist of fairly form-fitting pieces. In beach volleyball, mobility is key, and if a loose piece of clothing were to touch the net, the opponent would be given the point. But there are other functional outfits that can be worn that render the same advantages without creating vulnerability and discomfort, particularly at the juniors level. 

But why is a standard of bikini-wearing so detrimental?

The primary negative result of the bikini requirement is body image issues that run rampant throughout the beach community. 

A study done by psychologists at Penn State showed that female student-athletes often desire a muscular body to be successful in sport, but this body type does not fit traditional cultural norms of femininity or beauty, resulting in decreased body esteem. 

Female athletes are often forced into an internal battle with themselves about whether they want their body to perform or conform. 

Many athletes understand the advantages to being muscular, tall, strong, and powerful for sports, but acknowledge that the societal beauty standards often contradict the bodily expectations for sports performance.

Let’s return to the survey I conducted.

It showed that 97% of players reported experiencing body-image issues and 92% of the players reported their body image issues were either caused or amplified by the sport’s uniform standards. 

For many players, this insecurity manifested as disordered eating. In fact, 95% of the participants in the study reported restricting their food intake in a direct attempt to lose weight.

Beyond the numbers are real-life stories of women whose lives are dominated by the moments they feel obligated to wear a bikini. 

When I asked my survey participants to share their stories, many players commented on the disparity between societal expectations and their own body types were further exacerbated by uniform norms. 

One collegiate player said, “There’s an expectation that beach volleyball players should be tall, skinny, and toned. Our bodies are completely exposed, meaning that everyone can see if we don’t conform to body expectations.” 

A different collegiate player commented that having to wear a bikini acted as “a catalyst to the deterioration of (her) mental health and self-image.” 

One adult player highlighted an interesting dichotomy: For her, while bikinis “put on display the shapes and forms of different versions of healthy, athletic women” fostering confidence in natural bodily variations, she still believes comfort and choice should be prioritized over “a preference for uniformity.”

Caitlin Cummings peppers at a USC practice/John McGillen photo

When I entered the beach volleyball scene, my already-present adolescent body image issues were amplified. Wearing a bikini simply acted as an impetus that catapulted me further into a battle with body image and disordered eating that I may not ever fully overcome.

Any small battles players face may be amplified by uncontrollable circumstances. 

For me, this was an injury. When I was a junior in high school, I landed poorly from a jump and tore my ACL, both of my menisci, and dented the femoral cartilage of my left knee. Although the physical pain was insufferable, it was a breath of relief compared to the mental torture I endured once the entire experience from surgery to recovery had run its course. I was immobile, at least for the first three months. I watched as my notoriously muscular legs, buffed up by hours of late-night lifting and plyometrics, whittled down into little sticks of skin and bone. 

I watched my body change as I used food as a coping mechanism to suppress my sadness. When I looked in the mirror four months after my injury, I didn’t even recognize myself. Knowing that my end goal was to return to the sand, I was constantly reminding myself that I would soon be in a bikini. This was when I first developed a mindset of “deserving food.”

The rare combination of sprints, jumps, and diving (all in deep sand) make beach volleyball a ridiculously efficient calorie-burning mechanism. Once my 120 minutes of glorious caloric expenditure per day was revoked, I did not feel like I deserved the food anymore. As my body image dissatisfaction became more prominent, my general dissatisfaction with other aspects of my life such as social interaction and school achievement also increased. I became a perfectionist.

The more I have talked to other players, the more I realize that this perfectionism is much more common than one might think, and directly tied to the beach volleyball identity. Although perfectionism is mistaken by many as a good work ethic or goal setting, it actually has a toxic impact on many people, particularly athletes. 

In a 2005 paper on the psychological impact of perfectionist mentality in sports, Gordon L. Flett and Paul L. Hewitt of York University determined that “perfectionism in sports is primarily a negative factor that contributes to maladaptive outcomes and unhealthy patterns of behavior.” This feeling can be compared to dissatisfaction with a grade in the class. Maybe you wanted an A, and you got it; but, you got a 94% instead of a 100%. The York University study also found that “athletes high in personal-standards perfectionism reported difficulty concentrating while performing, and they experienced worries about the reactions of the audience.”

Through the testimonial of many different players, it is clear that a primary way in which this manifests in obsessing over food intake and exercise. For me, I was always driven by the desire to be skinnier. I did not necessarily believe being skinnier would make me a better athlete, but I thought people would perceive me as a better athlete. This made me less accepting of my body, and I found myself spending a large part of every day planning out what I was going to eat, and how I would work it off. Although this mindset I had seems extremely dangerous and unsustainable, it is sadly quite common.

Beyond the body-image issue, there is an inherent sexism that accompanies the uniform standards. Many people point out that the bikini uniform places an emphasis on the importance of appearance and encourages the sexualization of the players. One place where this is very apparent is photos.

With all of the jumping, diving, and action guaranteed during every single play, beach volleyball is a visually exciting sport with unlimited photographic potential. Yet, a simple Google image search for “female beach volleyball player” yields hundreds of photos focusing on players’ bodies; particularly the stomachs, chests, and posteriors. Imagine if a photographer at a men’s swimming event zoomed in and took photos focusing on the crotch of a man. The photos would never surface because they would be considered obscene and a breach of privacy. So why is it not only OK but encouraged that photographers at beach volleyball events do the same and photograph intimate body parts? Bikinis are sexualized in American culture, so they are interpreted similarly when worn for sports.

Especially at the juniors level, tournaments are played on public beaches. This means that anyone can watch these players, some of whom are as young as 9, as they compete with their bodies exposed. Many players can recall at least one unfortunate situation where they have been made uncomfortable by random beachgoers who make comments about players’ appearances, or take photographs from the safety of the sidelines.

It is hard to nail down where this standard of bikini-wearing was born without recognizing how the organizations at the forefront of the sport such as the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball, more widely known under the acronym FIVB, have perpetuated these exact stigmas.

The FIVB is the governing body of all forms of volleyball. The FIVB rulebook determines appropriate game play, sportsmanship, player conduct — everything. Before 2012, the FIVB rulebook required players to wear bikini tops and bottoms during competition. 

Although the rule has been modified to allow for more modest dress dictated by certain religious standards and cold weather, the convention of wearing a bikini is still ingrained in the culture of the sport. This style has been repeatedly reflected as the dominant uniform style at the highest level over the course of decades. Additionally, players are often required to wear matching uniforms to their partner, meaning if one member of the duo strongly favors bikinis while the other favors a shirt and shorts, one must compromise. For these reasons and more, beach players of all levels have become accustomed to wearing bikinis, regardless of the rule modifications.

There are organizations, including the NCAA, which have recognized a need for stricter uniform requirements. At the collegiate level, beach volleyball uniforms consist of tank tops and spandex, similar to the ones worn in the indoor game. Although this rule may be annoying to players who feel most comfortable playing in bikinis, this rule protects those who prefer to play in more conservative attire who may have otherwise felt pressure to strip down via mob mentality.

Beyond the NCAA, there has been a large shift in the uniform policies of many national level tournaments that has trickled down into the juniors uniform policies as well. Many tournaments are now banning swimsuits and requiring that participants wear shorts and t-shirts similar to the collegiate uniforms. USA Volleyball has started requiring the same from the players who attend their training camps and compete in their tournaments.

Normalizing a wider array of uniforms will help preserve the integrity of the game. Permitting female players to wear shirts and shorts would allow competitors and spectators alike to appreciate the sport for its difficulty rather than the bodies of the players. In my own survey, 92% of players reported that they thought about their body always, often, or sometimes while playing. Players should not have to worry about what their bodies look like while they are competing.

In reality, players at the highest level represent a vast array of body types. In order to invoke change, players at the highest level have spoken up.

April Ross, a two-time Olympic medalist, admitted in an interview for the ESPN Body Issue that she was “definitely self-conscious” about her body throughout her first seasons as a professional beach player. She acknowledged that the uniform requirements create an environment where the ideal body of a beach player often gets convoluted with the conventional beach body that society deems attractive in a swimsuit. She has been a proponent of emphasizing that she is “not trying to look great in a bikini” but “trying to be as strong as possible and as powerful as possible for (her) sport.”

Let’s play devil’s advocate: Bikinis may actually boost the popularity of women’s sports. Beach volleyball is one of the only sports where the women’s game is more popular than the men’s. In fact, the 2012 London Olympics women’s semifinal match replay has over 1.7 million YouTube views while the corresponding men’s match has only 273,000. However, I believe a large portion of viewership is there to enjoy the women in skimpy clothing. This subjects women to more sexualization which detracts from appreciating the time and skill required to succeed.

Beach volleyball players are, first and foremost, athletes. We cannot continue sweeping these prevalent and extremely harmful issues under the rug. Having discussions surrounding the impact of uniforms can empower female athletes to advocate for beneficial systemic change, equipping athletes with the skills to effectively talk about struggles and create measures for future change. Should athletes choose to continue wearing bikinis, and surely they will, so be it. But having discussions surrounding the impact of uniforms can equip female athletes with the skills to effectively talk about potential preferences with players of all body types and comfort levels.

In sports and in life, body image can be a huge issue for a vast population. There are so many things that contribute to an individual’s struggle with body image and disordered eating, but it is important to recognize that it is not an individual issue. 

If you are struggling, you are not alone.  

I appreciate the organizations that have maintained changes despite facing backlash in an effort to shift athlete focus from uniform-related body image concerns to athletic performance, but there are still so many changes to be made.

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If you or someone you know is struggling with disordered eating, you can seek help with the following resources, the National Eating Disorders Association Hotline and the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

7 COMMENTS

  1. your thoughts on this issue are staggeringly profound. I love your courage. the sexualization of this sport is disturbingly obvious, similar to usa gymnastics scandal. I wish you the best and apologize for the horribleness of men

  2. Wow, what a well-considered and written piece. We are in Australia and our daughter is just starting her beach volleyball journey – 12 years old and entering high school this week. My wife and I studied the sexualisation of athletes over 20 years ago when we were at university, and are both stunned that this double standard and unfair restriction of choice is still alive and well in 2021. What will it take for FIVB to realise the damage that is being done to such a high percentage of talented athletes, at such a vulnerable time of their development and life?

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