Earlier this month, the Seattle Storm, the W.N.B.A. team who won last year’s championship, announced a partnership with TomboyX, a gender-neutral line of undergarments. Fans can now buy Storm-branded TomboyX bras and underwear, choosing from a black bralette or charcoal gray boxer briefs. Unlike team-branded thong underwear for sale from some major men’s sports leagues, including the N.B.A. and M.L.B., there are no push-up bras or lace panties in sight.
W.N.B.A. teams are changing the way they approach marketing to their fans and portraying their athletes. Instead of emphasizing sex appeal and heteronormative styles, the league is leaning into the aesthetic that many of their fans and players already prefer, one that includes androgynous and masculine looks. Beginning with the social media accounts of players and teams, continuing through media accounts like WSLAM and LeagueFits, and culminating in official partnerships, the league is celebrating and showcasing androgynous swag.
The W.N.B.A.’s vice president of player personnel at the time, Renee Brown, told The Chicago Tribune that “womanhood” was important when it came to marketing the league, describing a player as “a woman first” who just happened to play sports. In a 2013 profile for Elle, Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner said she declined to participate in the (then-optional) classes because “I don’t need that.”
These beauty expectations were rooted in homophobia, whether or not the players were queer themselves. The fear that sports would make women “mannish” goes back to the turn of the 20th century. Female athletes were seen as a threat to the belief that a woman’s purpose was to get married (to a man) and have children, as the historian Susan Cahn noted in a 1993 paper. Catering to the male gaze, professional female athletes were taught to portray a traditionally feminine exterior and to play up the perception of their heterosexuality.
But a changing culture and direct communication between athletes and fans on social media have allowed the W.N.B.A. and its players to create a new narrative about the aesthetics of women who ball. Not only is an androgynous and masculine presentation O.K., it’s downright fashionable.
Brittney Sykes, a guard for the Atlanta Dream, can be seen on her Instagram account in knee-length cutoff jeans and a tank top. Guard Courtney Williams of the Connecticut Sun posts photos of her game-day outfits, which she has described as “like a little boy” and “easily best dressed in the WNBA.” Las Vegas Aces forward Tamera Young posts photos of herself in androgynous fashion: In one she wears green pants by the designer Malena Janelle, a black graphic T-shirt, a beige cardigan and sneakers. In another, she shows off her silver Air Jordan 1 Retro Low sneakers.
The league is getting in on the action, too. Fashion photos of N.B.A. players arriving for game day have long been a staple of basketball coverage, with players like James Harden and Russell Westbrook showing off patterned suits, jaunty hats and slick shoes. Now their W.N.B.A. counterparts get the same treatment. Their outfits are documented by team photographers and posted on social media with captions like “game day drip” (a term that means your style is extremely fashionable) and “peep that style.” Next to Los Angeles Sparks rookie Kalani Brown doing a twirl in her striped minidress is her teammate Riquna Williams walking in plaid pants and a bomber jacket. Androgynous looks are shown as just as stylish and coveted as outfits that are more feminine.
This is a big deal. In the past, the athletes whose images were seen as most desirable — women like Lindsey Vonn, Maria Sharapova, Alex Morgan — were women who fit into conventional ideas of female beauty: feminine, white assumed heterosexual. The male gaze was imposed on these athletes: Men were the audience, and executives most likely hoped that if the game itself couldn’t draw in male viewers, then maybe the attractiveness of the athletes might.
A 2013 study in the Journal of Communication and Sport noted that media portrayals of female athletes emphasized femininity and heterosexuality as opposed to athleticism. A focus on heterosexual sex appeal prevented women athletes from being seen as too threatening to male audiences or too challenging to the status quo.
Sports can still be an incredibly hostile place to be queer. This continues to be a problem in professional sports, but it’s an even bigger problem at the college level. Over a quarter of L.G.B.T.Q. student athletes have reported being harassed or bullied because of their sexual orientation, and collegiate athletes are more likely to report harassment than their straight counterparts.
One of the best things that could come out of the W.N.B.A. is that this culture of accepting and celebrating various forms of gender presentation could trickle down to the N.C.A.A., where homophobia is still rampant and female players are often pressured to conform to traditional gender norms.
Griner has been open about the fact that she was asked not to talk publicly about her sexuality while playing for Baylor University. “The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor,” she said in 2013.
Game-day fashion is a highly cultivated and carefully crafted aesthetic that deserves to be fully appreciated and admired. The photos of W.N.B.A. players’ street style show that not only femme women spend a lot of time thinking about the clothing they wear; players who come to a game in androgynous attire put just as much thought into their outfit as an athlete who chooses to wear heels and a designer dress.
To be sure, not every woman playing in the W.N.B.A. dresses in androgynous fashion, nor should she have to. There is more than one way to be a woman in basketball.
Britni de la Cretaz (@britnidlc) is a sportswriter whose work focuses on the intersection of sports and gender. She is working on a book about the National Women’s Football League.
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