SALT LAKE CITY — Jessa Gines Dansie could certainly relate when she heard the controversial news about a women's beach handball team that was fined over the weekend for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms.
Last year, she was playing libero position for the Salt Lake Community College women's beach volleyball team in an Idaho gym when she dove and the skin of her right leg caught on the gym floor, causing an injury that kept her out the rest of the season.
She had been wearing short spandex, and the gym had just had its floors redone. When her skin stuck, the rest of her body kept moving. She ended up with three tears in her quad, a partial tear in her hip flexor and a partial tear in a tendon. It took around three months to recover.
"As an athlete, I've had quite a few injuries, and this one hurt the most," she said.
She was just a freshman, and the team's starting libero had just broken her hand during practice two days earlier. The team had a promising start, but without the best passers, their trajectory took a downturn.
"I had worked so hard all summer long and didn't get to play. That definitely sucked," Gines Dansie said.
She has worn leggings the rest of her career — both indoor and beach — so that she doesn't get another similar injury. Many people questioned her decision and she had to fight a bit, but she was allowed to wear what she wanted to protect herself.
The Norwegian women's beach handball team — a sport that plays on a court with the same configuration as beach volleyball — was just issued a fine for making a similar decision.
The team notified the European Handball Federation that it would be wearing shorts rather than the mandated bikini bottoms during a game against Spain on Sunday, stating that the bottoms aren't practical for the sport that frequently involves diving in sand.
The federation's disciplinary commission fined the team 150 euros per player for that choice, stating that the promotion of the sport requires "the ideal presentation," which "includes the outfit of the players."
The Norwegian Handball Federation is paying the fine for the players.
"This is an important battle, and I'm very proud to be a part of this," Norwegian team member Martine Welfler wrote on Instagram. "This positive feedback is insane and I can't believe it, to be honest."
The rules state that female athletes must wear bikini bottoms, "with a close fit and cut on an upward angle toward the top of the leg." Male athletes are allowed to compete in shorts.
"That's hugely dehumanizing and objectifying to me," SLCC women's beach volleyball head coach Shay Goulding-Meurer said. "Personally, we're not dealing with it in the gross way this Norwegian team is experiencing it, but there's definitely still some sexualization of the sport and some double standards."
In 2012, the Federation of International Volleyball changed the standards for beach volleyball to be more inclusive of personal preference and cultural differences that may call for more coverage. Female beach volleyball players don't have to wear bikinis, though many do because of the heat and the ease of getting sand out. According to their rules, athletes can wear tank tops, shorts, long sleeves, athletic tights — as long as they match the rest of their teammates.
"When it comes to beach volleyball, we're playing in 100-degree-plus weather. I think we've just got to educate the public, take it with a grain of salt and make sure that we're working hard and not playing up the sex appeal because it's inherent anyway," U.S. women's beach volleyball player and three-time Olympic gold medal winner Kerri Walsh Jennings told Huffington Post in 2016.
Walsh Jennings and her partner April Ross wore cold-weather gear with long sleeves under their bikinis when they played in the Olympics in Rio. That same year, Egypt's beach volleyball team competed in long sleeves and pants.
"We have the freedom to do that," Goulding-Meurer said, referring to Walsh Jennings and Ross and their decisions to wear bikinis or not, depending on the weather. "When the choice is taken away, that's when the dehumanizing and objectifying starts."
Because beach handball is a relatively new sport, it is only included in the Youth Olympics and not yet in the regular Olympics.
"This is one thing that I think is really going to bite the beach handball federation in the bum when they try to qualify for the 2024 Olympics," Golding Meurer said.
The NCAA and the the National Junior College Athletic Association don't allow bikinis, so the Salt Lake Community College team doesn't have many of these problems, especially in a more conservative state like Utah. But the coach is still concerned about the pressure this kind of double standard puts on her players, especially those who don't look like typical professional athletes.
"Every athlete is different," she said. "A lot don't think about what other people think, but lots of girls become obsessed with body image."
This obsession, she added, led more of her athletes than she'd like to count to bulimia and exercise addiction.
"It's hard for women and the beauty standard that we have. It feels like there's a specific standard that you have to look like," Gines Dansie said. "Wearing something that exposes you when you don't feel like you fit that standard, it makes me uncomfortable. I refuse to wear it."
The sexualization of the sport is also a concern for her.
"In high school I played in a bikini, and it's always in the back of your head, 'Who's looking at me? How much am I exposing?'" she said. "It's a little frustrating, the fact that men don't have to worry about that."
Goulding-Meurer reminds her players that, in the short history of women's sports, female athletes have come a long way and that these team members have opportunities that were not around a few decades ago. But she also reminds them that the kind of double standard happening in Norway happens in subtler ways here, too.
"We're in 2021 now, and this is still a concern and there's still pressure," she said.
Gines Dansie recalled that the SLCC men's basketball team would come watch volleyball games and tell her and her teammates that they were just there because of what the team wore, not to watch them play.
"People watch the games to watch us. It makes me feel like an object, not an athlete," she said. "'What are they going to wear?' It's a question that gets asked a lot."
There has been so much progress toward equality during her lifetime, but there is always more to be learned and to improve, she explained. And athletes that put the time in and effort in to be really good bring more respect to the sport, she added.