When swimsuit designer Jessica Rey’s video “The Evolution of the Swimsuit” went viral earlier this year, I didn’t pay it much mind, particularly when I learned she tried to make a connection between bikinis and the objectification of women. I would have happily gone on paying her no mind had I not found myself immersed in the Facebook comments of a Ms. Magazine article that critiqued Rey’s argument. The discussion – if you can call what unfolded a discussion – really bothered me, to the point that five days later, after stewing on this for an embarrassing amount of time, I decided to write about it.
As longtime readers of this blog know, I live in a coastal community in Florida. At one point, I lived on a beach community, with the Gulf of Mexico just three blocks away from my home. A large fraction of my time as a Floridian has been spent in a bikini. I have a drawer full of them, including a blue Nike sport one that I wear during open-water swims in the gulf. I do have a one-piece, an obnoxiously patterned TYR one with crossed straps in the back, that I wear while swimming laps in the pool, but for the most part, I wear bikinis.
I will admit that it stung a little bit to read comments scoffing at the whole existence of the bikini, including one particularly well-liked comment that said, “I don’t see how being nearly naked at the beach fights the patriarchy.” I was wearing my blue sport bikini at the beach yesterday when I heard those words in my head, and I just felt very sad at the idea that a swimsuit – one that allows me to do something I love in a very comfortable way – could be a source of such derision and controversy, from my fellow feminists no less. But I also felt like the critics were missing something, which is that the issues with swimwear are not inherent to the swimwear itself, but with the context in which those swimsuits are worn.
For instance, let’s talk about the swimwear Rey designs. The designs are cute and retro, with fabric that covers the wearer’s midriff and boyshort-style bottoms that cover butts and hips. They are form-fitting but the ruched fabric gives the sense that you are not seeing every bump and curve of the wearer’s body.
The big selling point of Rey’s swimwear is that it is modest, and in fact she has made a career for herself as a speaker who talks about chastity, modesty and young womanhood. She’s been praised by a lot of religious bloggers for providing a stylish alternative to the two-piece swimsuits, which tend to occupy the most real estate in stores. (And of course there are those who think she’s still promoting immodesty and that swimwear should cover as much as street clothes do. I guess you can’t please everyone.)
I found it interesting to contrast Rey’s designs with my own readings, about the history of women’s swimming in the United States. One legend, possibly apocryphal, has Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman being hauled into court for the crime of baring her legs during a swim at Revere Beach in Massachusetts in 1908. What is not apocryphal is the fact that policemen did in fact used to patrol beaches, measuring tape in hand, to ensure women were not showing more than six inches of thigh (from knee to hem). And in “The Great Swim,” about four women who attempted to swim the English Channel in 1926, Gavin Mortimer said newspapers latched onto the swimmer’s exploits because it gave them the opportunity to show scantily-clad women on their front pages without violating obscenity standards.
Just what did those scandalous swimsuits look like?
Surely I am not the only one who thinks its fascinating how you can take one swimsuit and put it on a woman in 1926 and it is basically considered free pornography, and then take a similar swimsuit and put it on a woman in 2013 and she is considered a paragon of feminine modesty.
That’s because it’s not about the swimsuit.
The shift in meaning may even occur within women who are contemporaries. For instance, a lot of women have said that they like one-piece swimsuits because it frees them from feeling as though they’ve been coerced into adopting a specific kind of culturally-mandated sexiness. They don’t want to expose wide expanses of skin to the public, and they don’t want to feel like sex objects to be ogled by random people on the street. They just want to wear a damn swimsuit without feeling like they have to play into the social script of sexiness, and a one-piece lets them do that. They feel liberated from the sexiness mandate.
For me, the script goes the other way. I was raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Utah, and proscriptions against immodest dress were a part of my daily life. Immodest dress was defined as everything from bikinis to sleeveless tops and shorts that were shorter than your fingertips. Certainly no one forced anyone to dress according to the church’s standards of modesty, but the social pressures were very powerful. When we girls and women were taught to embrace modest dress, it was under the auspices of sharing our bodies only with our husbands and also of protecting non-husband-like men from being morally compromised by having sexual thoughts about women who were not their wives.
For me, wearing a bikini is a lot like drinking coffee and alcohol, watching R-rated movies, using cuss words and getting tattoos, in that all of these things had once been placed off-limits to me by a faceless religious bureaucracy. What’s more, when I did start indulging in them, I not only found them rather innocuous, but I also found that I really liked them. Dare I say it? I found a bit of liberation in my embrace of these things.
I’ve heard other stories of bikini-as-liberation by women whose bodies are not normally considered “bikini worthy.” The fatkini became such a huge thing, after all, because women with larger bodies had been told, both implicitly and explicitly, that bikinis are not for them, that they are to keep their bodies under wraps at all costs and that they should only look at swimsuits that will disguise their bodies. (That is, if they dare to wear swimsuits at all.) In this context, a bikini on a fat woman is a socially trangressive act, because she is pushing against social constructs that say fat bodies should not be seen and they should most definitely never, ever be exposed.
One swimsuit, three different experiences of that swimsuit. Who is right here? I’d say we all are. Why? Because it’s not about the swimsuit.
My final point questions the very premise behind Rey’s swimwear itself. The argument seems to be that women can increase their estimation in the eyes of men by covering up a little bit, which in turn will lead men to be less likely to objectify them and more likely to see them as women. I don’t think that’s accurate at all, no matter what a single study says, mainly because I doubt that the kind of ethically deficient person who is likely to think less of a bikini’d woman is going to suddenly find themselves magically less sexist upon being confronted with an additional panel of fabric. A sexist person is going to be sexist, regardless of what the woman in front of them is wearing.
I have this guy who trolls one specific post of mine – a defense of skimpy running clothes I wrote last summer during the Olympics – and every time anyone comments, he tries to respond to let us wo-MEN know that we are all whores and sluts who are tempting men and who deserve whatever happens to us. I blow the guy off because he’s obviously a sad little man, but I also know that he’s just bluntly stating what a lot of people think. Do you really think that a guy like that is going to suddenly become respectful of women if we were to all wear knee-length shorts and t-shirts everywhere we go? No, that guy is probably going to hate women until he dies.
You’ll have to forgive me if I am not all that enthused at the idea of changing my behavior in the dim hopes of winning guys like him over. Not only do I not care what a guy like him thinks, but I think it would be a fruitless endeavor anyway.
The story of Iranian swimmer Elham Asghari provides a pretty good example of why I think the idea that modest dress for women will lead to a world free of objectification is a deeply misguided one. Asghari recently swam 20 kilometers, or more than 12 miles, in the Caspian Sea while wearing a specially designed swimsuit that is a full hijab – and seriously, just think about that for a second, that she swam twelve miles in open water in hijab, before you continue reading – and yet she says Iranian sports officials refused to certify her achievement because, “They said the feminine features of my body were showing as I came out of water.”
How can this be? She’s wearing way more fabric than any of Rey’s designs. Her swimwear certainly covers more than this, which is one of the most conservative styles of modest swimwear I’ve come across, and yet her country’s sports officials said she was still too provocative.
Once again, it’s not about the swimsuit.
The swimwear is not the consistent factor in these anecdotes – not my bikinis, not Asghari’s aquatic hijab, not all of the variants in between. Instead, the one constant in all of these things is the underlying current of anxiety over women’s bodies, and by extension, women’s sexuality. The Kite sisters at Beauty Redefined covered this last year:
Women’s bodies should never be compared to any object to be consumed. Women deserve more credit and so do men! When we teach women to cover up to protect and spare men from their “inappropriate,” “vulgar,” or “too-tempting” bodies, we are once again teaching them that their power is in their bodies and their displayed sexuality. We’re still reinforcing to men and women that women’s bodies – whether deemed “modest” or “immodest” – exist for the male view. And we’re also continuously teaching the myth that men are powerless to the sight of female bodies and can’t be held responsible for their own thoughts and actions.
To make the argument that a swimsuit is either inherently patriarchal or feminist is to miss the point, because the fact is that a swimsuit, no matter how much fabric was used in its creation, only derives any sort of wider meaning from the culture in which it is worn. A one-piece swimsuit does not automatically turn the wearer into a smasher of patriarchy, nor does it mean she is a defender of Christian virtue. And a woman in a bikini is not necessarily colluding with the patriarchy, either, even if she’s wearing the bikini because she feels sexy in it.
Instead of continuing to allow the terms of the conversation about women’s swimwear be set by people who fear women and our bodies, I propose that instead we consider what it is we want out of swimwear. What kind of swimwear are we most comfortable in? What swimwear lets us do the things we want to do? (And also consider the possibility that you may not want anything out of swimwear, and that you may not even like going near the water! This is also an acceptable option.) If we care about feeling attractive and stylish, then what swimwear fits with our particular tastes and desires?
Let’s start centering this conversation on our own desires and our own needs instead of constantly trying to anticipate the wishes of anonymous hordes of people just waiting to issue judgment upon our heads. Frankly, I’m tired of trying to please those anonymous hordes will never be pleased anyway. At this point in my life, I really only dress to please myself. What can possibly be more feminist than that?