A gymnast’s “Cats”-inspired makeup led to a ban on theatrical makeup for all gymnasts

“Modest” makeup only.
“Modest” makeup only.
Image: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
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The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) has declared that female athletes will no longer be allowed to wear “theatrical” makeup for their floor routines. The decision, first reported by the sports publication Deadspin, follows Dutch gymnast Céline van Gerner’s performance at the European Championships in Doha, Qatar, in which she was fully made up in face paint inspired by the Broadway musical Cats. 

The get-up caused some controversy for van Gerner, an Olympic athlete, in the notoriously straightlaced sport. Now the sport’s international governing body has declared a new addition to its competition code: “Face painting is not allowed. Any make-up must be modest and not portray a theatrical character (animal or human).” FIG did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the rule change.

Van Gerner says she was the very first gymnast to appear in full character face paint in the competition. She took the news in stride:

She also noted over email that she thinks the ban is a “missed opportunity to let the sport grow.” “I’m happy I did it when I still had the chance, it also gave me kind of extra wings in my routine,” she added, “I really felt like a cat, not just pretending to be like a cat.”

Others, however, took issue with the language of FIGs new policy, and its use of the loaded word “modest”—which has long been used as a proxy for policing women’s bodies in a way that confers shame on them:

Furthermore, as Deadspin and Twitter users noted, gymnasts are literally charged with conveying a “character” or “artistic point of view” in their floor routines, which van Gerner did quite effectively by underpinning her routine (to the score of Cats) with her outfit and makeup:

The FIG makeup ruling comes on the heels of the French Open’s ban on Serena Williams’ catsuit earlier this year, which the French tennis federation imposed, saying that players “must respect the game and the place”—thereby implying that the Grand Slam record-holder did not.

Placing restrictions on women’s appearances seems like the last thing the gymnastics world should be focused on at present. The policy comes at a time when heightened attention is being paid to the sexual abuse of female gymnasts in the industry, following the conviction of former US gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for decades of sexually abusing young athletes.

This story was updated with comments from Céline van Gerner herself.