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Finding the perfect work outfit, one that makes you feel confident and powerful, is a challenge for any woman. But it’s nearly impossible if your job is to beat people to a pulp in front of a rowdy crowd. Such is the case for Laura Anderson, a US grappling champion and aspiring mixed martial arts fighter who trains in a variety of grueling disciplines, including Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Finding comfortable clothes that can survive a bout in the ring is hard enough. Anderson thinks female wrestlers have the hardest job of all.
“For wrestling in particular, it’s really difficult to find gear,” says Anderson, who works as a wrestling coach at Brea Olinda High School in California. Wrestling gear — particularly the traditional singlet, a one-piece, sleeveless garment — is not cut for the female body. Singlets can often be fairly low-cut or include elongated armholes that expose the sides of the chest. “A lot of girls have to wear shirts underneath their singlets at tournaments,” she says. “There are guys who just go to tournaments just to look at girls in singlets. A lot of guys comment on the girls’ chests or butts in a tournament instead of their moves and skills.”
Despite a locker room culture rife with sexism, more female wrestlers are competing today than ever before. According to data provided by USA Wrestling, an estimated 15,000 high school girls compete on wrestling teams. By 2016, USA Wrestling’s female membership reached an all-time high for the eighth year in a row. The registry now has 11,582 women, including university students and professional fighters. Rising female athletes played a crucial role in promoting the niche sport, which was on the verge of being cut from the Olympics in 2013.
However, athletic-wear companies aren’t paying attention, and appropriate gear for girls is still hard to find. So female athletes from several combat sports are now taking their fight from the mat to the design studio, shattering the proverbial glass ceiling in sportswear's most insular boys' club.
Ila Erickson, the Los Angeles fashion designer behind Defila Sport athletic wear, is known for dressing big-name MMA fighters like Shayna Baszler, Jessamyn Duke, Alyssa Garcia, and Colleen Schneider. She previously made swimsuits for companies like Ralph Lauren and Forever 21, and the techniques she perfected as a swimsuit designer translated seamlessly when she started making combat gear. Singlets are usually made from heavyweight Lycra fabric for maximum stretch.
“After college, I started training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and grappling,” she says. “I was passionate about it and designed clothes for the sport I was into. It’s important to make these clothes with breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics that pull sweat away from your body to evaporate.” Blood, sweat, and tears can soak athletes’ uniforms after a particularly vigorous tumble.
Erickson has seen a steady rise in orders for women’s wrestling singlets since she founded the company three years ago. In 2016, she received 351 wrestling singlet orders from universities, high schools, and athletic clubs, including orders for 107 female athletes. She thinks the general attitude among manufacturers is “this is your weight, so this is your singlet,” which doesn’t work well for women’s bodies. “It’s tricky to get the perfect coverage,” she says. “One of the reasons I went into this is all the women’s stuff was obviously created by men.”
Few athletic companies advertise women’s wrestling gear. Most simply make one or two of the men’s options available in smaller sizes, or with pink flourishes, then call it women’s apparel. And while many female wrestlers are forced to wear shirts under their singlets to cover their breasts, doing so puts them at a disadvantage. “It’s easier for someone else to grab you,” Erickson explains.
On the other hand, if wrestlers don’t wear shirts underneath their singlets, it can lead to exposure and discomfort. This problem inspired Leigh Jaynes, a former USA Wrestling national team member and 2015 US Open champion, to found Chick Wrestler in 2012. Her company collaborates with manufacturers to make sure girls can get gear that fits.
“The whole reason I even thought of this is I was horrified at what I saw at a World Championship,” Jaynes says. “She [the competitor] was defending against a gut wrench and her boob was out. If you reach up to pull your strap up, you’re going to get rolled over.”
Several years ago, Jaynes approached the manufacturer Asics about making more options for girls and claims she was quickly rebuffed. “They did not see the financial reason they should develop a women’s wrestling singlet,” she says. The past few years have seen an explosion of publicity around the sport, thanks to women like Olympic medalist Helen Maroulis. Although Asics did not reply to requests for comment, it now offers more options in women’s sizes.
Many girls who love to wrestle don’t just see it as a hobby. It can help pave their way to a lucrative career in combat sports. “Wrestling is the only high school sport that could prepare someone to be an MMA fighter,” Erickson points out. One such example of this trajectory is former Olympic wrestler Sara McMann, who is currently ranked as the UFC’s seventh most popular women’s bantamweight fighter.
However, the world of athletic gear for combat sports is still widely dominated by men, from production to marketing. When companies do make women’s gear, they find that customers subvert expected gender norms. “Asics made pink and purple wrestling shoes, but there were more guys buying them than girls,” Jaynes laughs. “The one true-blue women’s wrestling shoe is the Asics Adeline Gray wrestling shoe.”
Asics launched Gray’s wrestling shoe in 2016, after Gray competed in the Rio Olympics. It’s available with with gold or magenta stripes and neon turquoise accents, and her cursive signature is stitched across the side. “My signature shoe is actually a unisex shoe,” Gray explained in a phone interview. “They don’t really make women’s wrestling shoes yet.”
Even so, Gray thinks it was an important step for Asics to promote the visibility of female wrestlers. “There’s a demand, but it’s tough because there isn’t really awareness,” she says. “We have 24 colleges across the country that have women’s wrestling programs and scholarships… girls are getting opportunities to get an education, compete, travel the world, and follow our dreams.”
Unfortunately, younger girls still face widespread discrimination when they try to join school teams. Some states even have regulations that prevent girls from wrestling with boys, for fear that their tight outfits and close contact would seem inappropriately sexual. “There are a lot of coaches who try to discourage girls or who flat out say no, they can’t join the team,” Jaynes says. “It’s a violation of their rights according to Title IX.”
From gear to regulations, the cards are stacked against female wrestlers. But fighting like a girl means never giving up. Every year, more students fight their schools for the right to compete. In April 2016, Utah student Kathleen Janis began one such struggle. The 14-year-old athlete attended wrestling camp and felt the sport helped her heal after years of bullying at school and domestic violence at home. But local policy still allows girls to be excluded until high school, leaving them at a competitive disadvantage. “You hear the sentiment that women’s wrestling doesn’t count because we have less experience,” Anderson says. “Well, yeah, we are just getting started.”
In areas where there aren’t enough girls to support their own league, they sometimes compete against boys, like Gray did when she was growing up. However, it’s still common for male wrestlers to forfeit their matches rather than compete against girls. “I trained with guys and competed against guys,” Gray says. “I’m all for girls having their own league once there are enough girls for them to compete against. But that takes coaches recruiting and getting the word out there.”
Girls often face discrimination on the mat and in the locker room. Last year in Federal Way, Washington, Gerald Carprio, father of three high school wrestlers, including a female state champion, filed a lawsuit claiming his daughters were treated differently than his son. The girls were allegedly forced to practice in the cafeteria instead of the wrestling room and were given only a fraction of their male peers’ uniforms and travel allowance. Equal access to uniforms has become synonymous with the battle against sexism in the sport at large.
Now many young wrestlers are demanding sportswear that defies gender stereotypes. Sometimes boys wrestlers want to wear pink, while their female peers want fiercer prints. “When I got into custom singlets, several girls wanted to look like tigers. Others wanted their singlets in camouflage,” Jaynes says. “Those companies that made pink shoes sold a lot of them, but not to whom they were expecting.”
When major brands finally acknowledge the growing demand for women’s gear, their interest can sometimes be a double-edged sword. For example, Reebok began sponsoring Ronda Rousey in 2014 and recently made an official deal with the UFC. However, former high school wrestling champion-turned-UFC legend Miesha Tate has criticized the deal, saying it perpetuates the wage gap for women in combat sports because female fighters generally have fewer matches.
Female fighters are still relatively new to UFC; they were first allowed to join in 2012. The UFC-Reebok merger pays competitors according to a tier system, almost guaranteeing women will earn less from sponsorship. The women’s collection for fans also includes more cutesy apparel, with sexy bra straps rather than ring-ready clothing. Fighters need high-impact sports bras with thick straps and ample coverage. There’s still a long way to go until these women are treated equally — like athletes instead of eye candy.