This morning, gymnastics fans awoke to the news that the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) had solved one of the most pressing problems facing the sport. No, they didn’t decide to address the abuse that has been running rampant on the women’s side of the sport for decades. Instead, FIG finally tackled the problem of one gymnast wearing cat makeup in her floor routine.
You might remember Celine van Gerner as the Dutch gymnast who performed in a full face of cat makeup at the recent European Championships to complement her floor exercise music. It was from the musical Cats!
The makeup choice didn’t do anything for her score, but it sure got noticed by fans and gymnastics officials alike. Fan opinion on the makeup was split, at least based on what I read on Twitter. Some felt it was fun and added something to the performance; other observers felt it over the top and not appropriate for an athletic performance.
Whichever side you fell on—I was on the former—it was difficult to argue that this was in any way an urgent matter that needed to be addressed. As van Gerner notes in her tweet, she was the very first gymnast ever to do something like this. The FIG could at least have waited until for one or two more athletes to perform like they’re recording their audition tape for Cirque du Soleil before banning theatrical makeup altogether. Even the New York Times Style section requires a minimum of three anecdotes before declaring something a new trend, after all.
The FIG’s exceptionally constipated choice of language in handing down the new edict is also noteworthy. “Face painting is not allowed. Any make-up must be modest and not portray a theatrical character (animal or human).” First of all, the gymnasts are supposed to portray a “character” in the floor routines, or at least convey a particular artistic point of view. Apparently, they are not allowed any help from the make-up in getting that point across. The FIG is like Goldilocks, in other words, searching for just the “right” amount of character. Clearly they were not pleased with van Gerner’s level.
And what exactly is “modest make-up” in this formulation? The phrase itself takes me back to high school and my girls yeshiva handbook, which went into great detail about what we could and could not wear. The aesthetic instruction was that we were permitted to wear makeup, but we had to keep it toned down. In advocating for the “wear makeup that doesn’t look like you’re wearing makeup” approach our teachers and rabbis pioneered an approach that later became popular among terrible dudes on dating apps—they didn’t like girls who seemed like they were wearing makeup but, at the same time, didn’t want to see our teenage acne. (If you were wondering: we were only supposed to wear “light colors” for nail polish, which got me sent to the office more than once. They kept a family size jug of nail polish remover there for miscreants like me.)
Long before van Gerner revolutionized the sport with her cat-face, gymnasts were diving face and hair first into buckets of glitter. Check out Russian Olympic gold medalist Aliya Mustafina and her perfect eyeliner job and generous coating of hair glitter. She could give a YouTube tutorial on how to do eye makeup.
Or check out Brazilian Daniele Hypolito wearing her patriotism on her eyelids. What of this, FIG?
This is not about makeup, really, but about policing what is and isn’t acceptable in “sports.” Artistic sports like figure skating and gymnastics are constantly having their athletic bona fides questioned, so much so that even their biggest stars feel compelled to insist on their status as athletes in interviews. Before the Winter Olympics, one ESPN columnist wrote a piece saying that figure skating needs to ditch the costumes. Another ESPN writer did the same thing in 2014. I’m sure we can expect the same re-heated take in 2022.
But here’s the thing: Cat makeup or not, subjectively judged aesthetic sports are always going to be scrutinized and forced to defend themselves against charges that they’re not sports-y enough. Given that, they might as well lean into the fun and bizarre.
The men, by the way, are still free to wear stage makeup if they so choose. So guys, it’s up to you to keep the Broadway spirit alive in gymnastics.
Or maybe just get a cat tattoo. Perhaps for your other arm, Marcel?