When the Shirt Hit the Fans

THE BALL SLINGS INTO THE NET, and by the time the camera pans back to Brandi Chastain, she has whipped off her shirt and is twirling it in the air above her head. Then she drops to her knees. For about six seconds, she is alone with her accomplishment. That’s the time it takes for her teammates to run to her from the center line, engulfing her in a raucous, cheering group hug. Chastain had won the 1999 Women’s World Cup—only the third ever such tournament—for the United States, on a penalty kick. 

In the video of Chastain from this moment, her joy has an almost blinding force. Satisfaction, exhaustion, and delight seem to roll off her body in waves. Few lives ever contain the kind of extreme exaltation that Chastain felt then, and few people ever look as good as Chastain looks in the images of her goal celebration. Her skin is golden from the sun; her blond ponytail whips around her as she jumps in the air and falls to the ground in a posture of prayer; her mouth is stretched wide with ecstasy. Shirtless on the field, she has the body of a professional athlete. You can see the muscles wrapping her arms and torso, each cord distinct. The day she won the World Cup, Chastain was about two weeks shy of her thirty-first birthday. In interviews now, more than twenty years later, she is deft at diffusing the image’s eroticism. Laughing, she says that when she sees the picture now, she tells herself, “You got to spend more time in the gym.” 

Chastain has been delicately navigating the fallout of that moment for more than two decades. The celebration was witnessed live by 90,000 people in the stands at the Rose Bowl in Pasedena—including then-President Bill Clinton—and another forty million watching on television. It was instantly famous. Chastain’s life has been defined by the removal of her shirt, and by the various desires and symbols that were projected onto the gesture, ever since. She even called her 2004 memoir It’s Not About the Bra, a title that suggests the bra was a pretty big deal. 

The pictures of Chastain—and in particular the famous front-on angle snapped by the photographer Robert Beck—are among the most iconic images of women’s sports, gracing the covers of Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. In 2019, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the image was rendered into a larger-than-life bronze statue of Chastain, sports bra and all, which now sits near the Rose Bowl parking lot. (It looks nothing like her.) 

Cover of Newsweek, July 19, 1999. Brandi Chastain.
Cover of Newsweek, July 19, 1999. Brandi Chastain.

But in 1999, when she took her famous penalty kick against China, Chastain was something of a belated and accidental celebrity. The World Cup’s star was supposed to be Mia Hamm, the forward, a dark-haired Southern belle with severe good looks. But Hamm was shy and withholding, visibly uncomfortable in the spotlight. And so, when the team did interviews, it was often Chastain who did much of the talking. Chastain is outgoing and jovial; her team nickname was “Hollywood.” In interviews, she’s brotherly and conspiratorial, like she’s letting you in on a secret. She never betrays annoyance, and she speaks in the dudely vernacular of a California surfer, which makes sense, because she’s from San Jose. Every word out of her mouth sounds like it’s delivered with a wink. Implausibly, she’s straight. 

Chastain’s unflappable confidence made her an apt messenger for women’s soccer, a sport that in 1999, as now, was loaded with the heavy baggage of American gender politics and feminist ambitions. The American women’s team had won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991, and then they went on to win gold at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. But like many women’s sports in that era, soccer was an underdog, struggling to keep fans and bring in revenue. When the US was set to host the World Cup in 1999, FIFA originally wanted to book a series of small East Coast stadiums for the tournament, assuming that American audiences couldn’t muster much enthusiasm to fill a whole arena for soccer, let alone soccer played by girls. But the level of public enthusiasm surprised them. Even now, players from the 1999 national team—known as “the ’99ers”—remark with defiant satisfaction that the World Cup had to be moved to bigger venues after the soccer federation realized how many tickets they could move. 

In 1999, there was some reason for American women to feel smug. Their futures looked bright. There were more women working outside the home than ever before—that year, women’s paid workforce participation reached a high of 60 percent—and the gender wage gap was starting to narrow, at least for white women. The economy was booming, and it was becoming relatively common, if not exactly routine, for women to enter traditionally male fields, to assume positions of leadership, and to live lives that weren’t defined by marriage and child-rearing. US power was at its peak: America could do anything, and with the World Cup title, it seemed that so could American women. 

In some ways, Chastain’s celebration was the apotheosis of this moment in American pop feminism. Jumping and spinning her shirt on the field, she had achieved something many doubted was possible, that she had doubted was possible, and she was reveling in it. At the Rose Bowl that day, like at women’s professional soccer games now, the stands were crowded with little girls, standing in ones or twos at the elbows of their parents, or bused in whole teams at a time, with the rubber bands of their braces matching the team colors on their jerseys. These little girls were constantly invoked in the responses to Chastain’s celebration, both the positive and negative ones. In her, and in her teammates, they were supposed to see their own unconstrained futures. 

Soccer made for a convenient vehicle for these aspirations. It was a nominally nonviolent sport, and so parents were more willing to let their daughters play soccer than, say, ice hockey. And for girls, the game also had the advantage of being one that athletic American boys were typically coached away from, in favor of more lucrative options like basketball and football—meaning that the women’s game could thrive without much in the way of male competition. The increasing enforcement of Title IX funding rules in the ’80s and ’90s meant that American prosperity was being lent, for the first time, to the cultivation of women’s athletic talent. And so, a generation of fast, strong American girls became soccer players, rapidly making the United States the dominant force in the international women’s game. 

The 1999 World Cup title was supposed to signal a sea change, proving that women’s professional sports could be profitable, and that women’s soccer was here to stay. But the first two attempts to launch a women’s domestic professional league in the United States failed, with teams unable to draw consistent crowds. A professional league, the Women’s United Soccer Association, was formed in the wake of the 1999 World Cup win, but it couldn’t make any money, and it folded just days before the opening of the next World Cup in 2003. Its successor, Women’s Professional Soccer, fared no better. The current National Women’s Soccer League, formed in 2012, has had more staying power. But its clubs are plagued by mismanagement and allegations of sexual misconduct, and for years the league had trouble getting its games broadcast on TV, a key way to draw new fans. Still, women’s soccer is continuously talked about as the next big thing. Its breakthrough moment is always just around the corner. 

In the hours and days that followed her shirtless, ecstatic victory, the discomfort prompted by Chastain’s disrobing was palpable. There was endless speculation about whether the shirt removal was supposed to be lascivious or not; there were conspiracy theories that Chastain had planned it in advance. Everywhere, Chastain’s disrobing was panned as bad for women, or at least bad for women’s sports. “I don’t believe ripping off your shirt is the most appropriate way to celebrate one of the greatest moments in the history of women’s sports,” wrote the columnist Sarah Sue Ingram, in a typical missive. “Immediately, Chastain’s antics were associated with money, i.e. sponsorships. Men paying women for taking their clothes off. So what else is new?” For her part, Chastain has taken to explaining the gesture in apologetic terms. “Momentary insanity, nothing more, nothing less,” she calls it. 

The substance of the complaints was that Chastain was excessive in her joy, unsportsmanlike to the opposing team, or unfairly taking the attention away from her teammates. Many of her critics conceded that the gesture was probably not meant to be sexual, but they insisted that it nevertheless was tacky, poor form. She wasn’t aware enough, they said, of her audience; she wasn’t thinking enough about how she appeared. Chastain’s celebrity dimmed considerably after the ’99 World Cup—she now coaches soccer at a prep school—but in the months following her kick, as the controversy still roiled, she tried to make it seem like she was in on the joke. She filmed a commercial for Nike playing on the controversy. In it, Chastain is on a backyard patio, playing foosball with three men, including the basketball player Kevin Garnett. She scores a goal on the foosball table, and, when her little man kicks the little ball in, she raises her hands and cheers. The three men look at her expectantly as she lowers her arms. “What?” she says. “What’s up with the shirt?” Garnett asks. She is still clothed. Chastain says that when she’s recognized in public, she’s been asked if she’s going to take her shirt off. “Not today” is her answer. 

The truth is that shirt removal was normal for soccer teams. Goal celebrations were, and are, a standard feature of professional soccer games, and at the time, players removing their jerseys was a common part of them—though usually, the triumphantly disrobed athlete was a man. But male players aren’t allowed to remove their shirts anymore (though some still do), because after Chastain’s celebration, FIFA promptly banned the removal of jerseys on the field, for men and women alike.

It’s not as if 1999 was a sexually innocent time. Sports bras were not some exotic secret, and Chastain was considerably less exposed than, say, Britney Spears in the music video for “. . . Baby One More Time.” Yet there was an almost desperate attempt to make Chastain’s display something done for the sake of other people’s gratification. “Her body showed what a physically fit female should look like,” one reader wrote to Ingram. “I’d rather look at her than at fat chicks.” But Chastain wasn’t thinking about being looked at at all. Perhaps this was what was truly offensive about Chastain’s display: she was a woman unburdened by embarrassment. It was a time when we told girls that they could do anything, but were confused, and slightly revolted, by grown women who acted like they believed it. 

In hindsight, the optimistic gender politics of the ’90s can seem cruel. The girl-power rhetoric of the time did little to acknowledge the reality that sexism would look very different for Black girls than for white ones. Nor did it grapple with the failures within the institutions that those girls were supposed to climb to the top of. Many of us assumed that the world had changed more than it really had; we mistook partial and superficial victories for substantial ones. The generation of young girls who were shown Chastain and the rest of “the ’99ers” as symbols of what their lives could be are now grown women, facing down a world that does not live up to that promise.  

As I was researching Chastain this spring, a draft of Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked to Politico. When abortion is against the law, women become prisoners of their bodies. Abortion bans alienate women from their physical selves, make them fear and mistrust their bodies. Every missed period becomes a threat, every uterus a potential traitor. After I read the news, the image of Chastain—triumphant in her physical mastery, beaming on the field with the sun on her skin—was hard for me to look at. Things are worse for women today than they were in 1999, and they are going to get worse still, for a long time, before they get better.

Twenty-three years after Chastain’s kick, the American women’s team is still one of the best in the world. In 2019, the US Women’s National Team swept to victory at the World Cup even as they were suing the US Soccer Federation for gender discrimination. These were the girls who had watched Chastain play in 1999, now all grown up, but still not getting paid as much as the men were. When they came back for a domestic victory tour, playing friendly matches around the country, the crowds would chant “EQUAL PAY!” every time they scored. In 2022, the US Women’s National Team ended their lawsuit against US Soccer. They settled, but they called it a victory. 

Moira Donegan is a writer and feminist in New York City.