Eat my ice: Fashion and queerness in figure skating

Figure skating is one of the most graceful, gorgeous and athletically impressive sports in the Olympics. The scoring itself reflects this dichotomy, with the five program components — skating skills, transitions, performance, composition and interpretation of music — reflecting a balance of artistic expression and athletic ability.

Although costume quality isn’t directly reflected in scoring, figure skating is truly the highlight of Olympic fashion. Skaters think long and hard about what they’ll wear on the ice and how it will complement their performance. How will the fabric flow in relation to their music? How can sequins, feathers and frills be best applied? And how much skin do they want to bare?

Despite all the sheer paneling and plunging necklines, the International Skating Union, or ISU, has a rather strict dress code. German figure skater Katarina Witt’s midriff-baring, booty-exposing outfits created such an international uproar that the “Katarina Rule” was instituted after the 1988 Olympics — hips, midriffs and behinds must now be fully covered.

Overall, the ISU upholds a “modest, dignified and appropriate” standard by ensuring that a skater’s body is at least half covered by their outfits. However, “covered” is a relative term, as skin-tone mesh helps skaters flirt with the risqué.

And while mainstream fashion trends have shifted and evolved over the past few decades, skating’s expensive style has stayed stagnant. Sequins and rhinestones peppering stretchy spandex-like material take the ice one after the other. Women flip around in short, aerodynamic skirts; men leap in shirt and pants-like costumes.

There’s definitely always room for creative expression, especially in different events. The pairs and ice dancing competitions’ ensembles are usually matchy-matchy, in harmony with the routine’s music and theme. Although women are now allowed to don unitards in all events, the general, cisgendered, heteronormative trends remain.

At the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Josefin Taljegård of Sweden was the only woman in the individual’s field to wear a one-piece. In an interview with NBC, she said that the pants matched the strength of her routine and music — it made her feel “confident.”

In the ice dancing competition, however, almost a third of the pairs featured a woman in a unitard, likely because of the ISU’s “street” theme for the event’s rhythm dance. Choreographers and coaches noted that “edgier” music made them feel like pants were a more viable option; yet, all of the qualifying pairs performed in skirts and dresses for the second round’s free dance.

Men’s outfits have also noticeably lacked on the aesthetic side. The pairs and ice dancers always pop, as the dual performance is much more compelling if both the guy and gal are bedazzled. But the men by themselves are often seen in simple black trousers, maybe with a sprinkle of color or sparkle on top.

This trend is more than an extension of fashion off of the ice — men’s fashion has leaped and bounded ahead in our current TikTok era. Artistry is intrinsic within figure skating, which is why we love it. The emotion, the music, the expression, all of it is inherently creative and makes skating more than a sport; it’s an art.

And art should not be restrained.

But judgment worms its way into everything. Male figure skating, because of its artistry and focus on aesthetics, is viewed as “a fairly homosexual-dominated sport, or LGBTQ-dominated sport,” according to (straight) American figure skater Nathan Chen.

Chen received immediate criticism for his toxic masculinity-infused, homophobic comments. By demarcating feminity as intertwined with queerness, Chen seeked sympathy that assumptions were made about his sexuality because of his prowess within the sport.

This subtly anti-queer sentiment is pervasive throughout figure skating. Most female figure skaters practice in sweatpants and leggings, and yet feel pressure to compete in skirts. Women are always femme, men skew masc and none of it really matters in terms of the written rules of the sport, athletic performance or eventual scoring.

Chen does not, and should not, have to femme it up to be considered a serious athlete (have you seen his quads?). The future of figure skating also does not have to bring a Blades of Glory-esque edge to every competition. But skaters should be able to express their sultry, sophisticated, sparkly selves however they wish, without fear of gender or sexuality-based discrimination, in and out of the rink.

Contact Katherine Shok at [email protected].

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