Nike’s ‘year of the woman’ gets off to a bumpy start with trans sports bra row

Trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney (10.8m followers on TikTok and 1.8m on Instagram) has been hired by Nike to promote its women’s Alate sports bras and Zenvy leggings, sparking a backlash from people who would prefer someone with a more typical woman’s body to model these kinds of products.

Mulvaney, most famous for her “days of girlhood” series on TikTok, has inadvertently become a focus for toxicity online. Her partnership with Bud Light inspired Kid Rock to shoot at cans of the lager, while another with Olay has received a similar reaction to the Nike deal – as well as plenty of support from her fans.

Nike’s Alate bra is a light support, padded bra, and the sponsorship is part of Nike’s “Feel your all” campaign, which aims to get more women involved in sport regardless of their athletic ability.  But Olympic athletes Caitlin Jenner (herself transgender) and Sharron Davies – as well as hundreds of Instagram followers – have spoken out against Nike’s partnership with Mulvaney.

Jenner tweeted, “Have some decency while being inclusive. This is an outrage,” while Davies said, “The ad feels like a parody of what women are. In the past it’s always been seen as an insult to say ‘run like a girl,’ and here we’ve got someone behaving in a way that’s very un-sporty and very unathletic and it’s so frustrating when only one per cent of the USA sponsorship dollar goes to females in sport. That Nike would do this feels like a kick in the teeth.”

The row comes at the start of Nike’s “year of the woman,” which looks ahead to the Women’s World Cup in Australia this July and August. A launch event was held at the newly-opened Serena Williams Centre, and Nike says it is dedicated to eradicating gender inequality in sport, claiming to have doubled investment in women’s products over the last four years

Nike’s track record with women is by no means perfect. In 2019 runner Allyson Felix – winner of nine Olympic medals including six golds – spoke out when she had her sponsorship money cut by 70% after she got pregnant. Nike subsequently introduced a maternity policy guaranteeing athlete’s pay for 18 months around pregnancy.

Nike has withstood much bigger controversies than Dylan Mulvaney in the recent past. The sports brand incited a lot of righteous shoe burning when they backed civil rights campaigner Colin Kaepernick, and stood by Tiger Woods through his infidelities, drunk driving and drugs. Nike also continues to weather the scandals of forced labour, human trafficking and modern slavery that dog their supply chain.

One inane Instagram post from Mulvaney will not undo the world’s biggest sports brand. For the record, it reads: “Home for a moment and leaning into cozy workout wear life with @nikewomen’s newest Zenvy leggings and Alate bra! They’re so comfortable and buttery soft, perfect for workouts and everyday wear!”