What the lack of tights for black figure skaters says about the sport
The discovery of figure skating by Louisa Warwin at the age of 6 propelled her towards an accomplished career. She has competed around the world and received numerous accolades, including a medal at the 2020 Reykjavik International Games. But amid her success, the 28-year-old, who is also a violinist, continues to meet a long-standing problem: finding the right tights to match your skin tone.
Warwin described his experience on TikTok in November, after not having access to pantyhose while attending a show in Birmingham, England. In the video, Warwin is seen sitting on the floor, visibly upset by her pantyhose which are several shades lighter than her skin tone. The brown tights she brought did not meet the competition requirements to fit the boot, leaving her no choice but to wear the only option available, a lighter colored pair, which put her uncomfortable.
“I’ve been going through this for over 20 years,” she told NBC News in February.
With Ghanaian and Nigerian roots, Warwin is the only black figure skater to qualify for the Norwegian national championship. While her life’s passion inspired her to break down barriers in a sport with limited diversity, she said the repetitive failure to find suitable tights often caused emotional discomfort and made her feel unwelcome.
“At this point, I was so frustrated,” Warwin said. “I couldn’t believe I was going through this again in 2021.”
For figure skaters, tights are no small feat. In addition to adapting to a skater’s skin tone, the flexibility of the tights allows the skater’s ease of movement and provides warmth in cold weather. But as more black people slowly enter the sport, they demand dignity and recognition equal to their peers in something that may seem insignificant to the casual figure skating fan.
During competitions, vendors are present and provide figure skaters with tights specific to the requirements of the competition. However, when it comes to black figure skaters, many sellers across Europe do not have tights available in darker shades, forcing skaters to bring their own or even dye what is available. While some skaters like Warwin are demanding that terrain change be more inclusive, smaller companies are also emerging to meet the growing need.
What also prompted Warwin, who is a figure skating coach, to post the video in November was one of his students who shared a similar experience.
Unable to find tights that matched her skin color, Warwin’s student, who is biracial, informed her that during a contest, one of the judges noted that her tights did not match her skin color . When the Warwin student tried to inform a Norwegian skate shop about their lack of supply for people of color, her response was that since she was a minority in the sport, there was no need for they have the tights available in her complexion. While the store offered to order the tights for the Warwin student, they did not arrive in time for the contest, forcing her to wear what was available.
This was enough for Warwin to post the video.
“There was something in my heart that was like, ‘I just need to share this,'” Warwin said.
After sharing the video, which has over 100,000 likes, Warwin drew criticism. Some people said she should have provided her own tights, which she objected to. Even then, where she provided her own tights for a skating show in England, she was told they broke the rules, she said, and a wardrobe stylist dyed in useless white tights. While Warwin received an apology, she said the situation caused her additional stress when she needed to focus on her routine.
“I never should have brought my own tights,” she said, “because if every other white skater in the show was getting tights, then I should have been getting tights too – and in doing that, if i had brought my own tights over the boot i would have continued the cycle where they don’t care about black skaters we need to break this cycle and we need to make them realize that for example you should have us provide what you provide to everyone.
Despite the negative reviews, Warwin received positive feedback. She said posting the video sparked conversations and provided a safe space for other black figure skaters to share relatable experiences.
“They were happy for me to bring it up,” she said, “because we need this change.”
Warwin remembers being brought to tears at the age of 10 after being teased for not wearing tights that matched her skin. In another incident, when she was traveling to a competition in Austria aged 15, her luggage was lost, and with it the tights she had packed. As she tried to find pantyhose on the spot, they didn’t have any in her complexion, she said.
In addition to trying to find suitable tights, Warwin said she encountered other challenges related to finding the right mesh dresses and hairstyles. On one occasion, Warwin said his trainer asked for his braids to be removed only a day after he put them on.
Meanwhile, 20-year-old Starr Andrews was featured in a 2010 video that went viral for her performance in Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.” Now a professional skater, she said she only realized the lack of diversity as she got older. Along with feeling lonely at times, Andrews said being a black figure skater brings pressure to prove her abilities to others.
“You’re like, ‘OK, well, you know, I really have to prove myself,’ and even if you skate for yourself, there are always people watching you,” said Andrews, who is a friend. with Warwin.
Similar to Warwin, Andrews said she struggled to find the right pantyhose to match her skin tone. Andrews, who is based in California, said she pays about $30 per pair of custom tights that are dyed to match her skin tone. She said it can get expensive, especially if she rips her tights, which often happens in figure skating. She also said it was difficult during the summer months, due to her changing skin tone, which impacted the look of her pantyhose.
Companies including Brown Skin Essentials and Nude Barre have increasingly begun offering skin-colored tights and other clothing to people of color. Another company implementing inclusivity in its product selection is Threads, a hosiery brand founded by Xenia Chen that offers sheer tights in five shades. The Toronto-based company’s tights are made in Italy, and the tights are made of high-quality materials designed to illuminate the natural color of the skin.
Chen, who is of Asian descent, started the company after overcoming her own challenges to find tights that were both comfortable and affordable.
“I felt like every time you go to the department store or drugstore and buy stockings or pantyhose,” Chen said, “what I saw on the shelves — there was a huge discrepancy between that and what I saw in real life.”
Although international manufacturers – such as Capezio, the Italian dancewear supply company – provide tights in shades for darker skin, Warwin said that because the tights are made for dancers and not skaters artistic, they do not provide heat when on the ice.
Besides figure skaters, Chen said professionals ranging from office workers to flight attendants have emailed the company to express their joy at finding tights that match their skin.
“They say things like, ‘I’m 50, and this is the first pair of new tights that actually match my skin color,'” Chen said, “and we get emails like that almost every week, which I really think is going to show, like, there was such a gap in the market before.
Andrews said she wanted to be the first black woman to win Olympic gold in figure skating. She also said she would like to offer figure skating lessons to more people of color.
“I feel like once you start it’s really hard to get out of it,” Andrews said, “because skating is so much fun.”
As for Warwin, she said she wanted her TikTok video to spark change. She says she sees herself in her students and wants to make sure they have access to the same tools as other figure skaters. In order to make the sport more inclusive, Warwin said vendors should provide multiple tights in all skin tones.
“You don’t have to be a figure skater to figure it out,” Warwin said. “You don’t have to be a dancer. If you sit down and look at the history of the world, look at the way things have happened, you’ll understand that it’s, like, a social issue, and then it trickles down to sports.
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