On Modesty & Swimwear
Posted on June 21, 2013
Earlier this week, a video of a speech by model/actress/swimwear designer Jessica Rey started making the rounds on Facebook. Titled “The Evolution of the Swimsuit,” the presentation resembles a TED talk in a lot of ways: a well-dressed and attractive presenter on a stage with some audio-visual support. Rey starts out by asking why, in the 1960 song, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini,” the main character is afraid to come out of the dressing room. Using this as her set-up, she explains the history of the bathing suit from the days when women wore full dresses to swim (and were transported to the beach in big wooden boxes) to now, when, according to Rey, all anyone wears are bikinis.
Rey herself used to wear bikinis, but eventually found that she was more comfortable in swimsuits that covered more. In an interview, she explained:
I used to live by the motto, “if you’ve got it, flaunt it!” and slowly began to realize that I was drawing the wrong kind of attention to myself. It was almost as if I was saying, “my body is the best and only good thing about me!” I didn’t know that clothing speaks a language- and I soon found out that my clothing was saying something totally different than what my words were (especially when it came to attracting the right kind of guy). I find that people take me more seriously when I am more covered up and I am also more comfortable, as opposed to pulling and tugging at my clothes all day long.
I’ve never worn a bikini. When I was in high school, I thought bikinis were immodest and therefore off limits to good Christians like me, and I stupidly thought I was too fat to wear one even if I wanted to. These days, I’m like Jessica in the sense that I don’t like to be pulling and tugging at my bathing suit, and I’d rather have a full-figure suit. When Rey felt like there weren’t a lot of cute, fashionable options for her, she decided to make her own swimsuits, and that eventually led to her company.
Now, I’ve got to say, Rey Swimwear is adorable.
I mean, look at those suits! So cute! So fun! I love the colors and the design, and looking at those prices, I’m really impressed. As someone who is becoming more aware of sweatshop labor, I’m also supportive of the fact that Rey Swimwear is manufactured in California. That’s not out of some pro-America philosophy, but out of relief that the company is having to follow United States employment law for whoever it is that sews the swimwear. I love that women who want to be modest also have the right to be fashionable, and that these swimsuits do that.
With all that said, there are a few trouble spots to be aware of with the Rey Swimwear philosophy and marketing. I don’t mean to say that it’s a bad company, or that you shouldn’t buy swimwear from them. I don’t think that Jessica Rey is a bad or immoral person. I do think it’s important to look critically at companies that are trying to promote a message in addition to a product, though, and I want to look at the message of Rey Swimwear. I would ask a few specific questions of the Rey Swimwear message.
Question #1: Is it true that the options for swimwear are super-revealing bikinis or matronly, unfashionable suits that resemble tents?
This makes up a pretty major element of Rey’s claims. She seems to feel that there were no other options out there for her other than bikinis, or that the only options were really matronly and ugly. Is that true, though? Just a quick peek at ModCloth shows that there are a ton of fashion-forward, one-piece bathing suits available in a wide price range. Here are a few of the ones I found:
I don’t disagree that bikinis are the most common type of swimwear you’re going to see on the beach or at the pool, but they are far from the only thing available.
Question #2: Is Rey correctly representing the Princeton study that she references in her video?
This was, to me, the biggest red flag in her presentation. Rey references Susan Fiske‘s study on “social emotion and the brain.” Part of this study was focused on the way that heterosexual males’ brains respond to images of fully- and scantily-clad women’s bodies. A little Googling revealed to me that Fiske’s study is being used all over the place in promotion of modesty. Basically, Rey, some news outlets, and countless modesty promoters believe that because some men experienced heightened activity in the section of the brain dedicated to action and the use of tools, it can be argued that men’s brains are wired to see women in bikinis as objects, not people.
Now, I think this is interesting. Objectification is a real problem, and it looks like Fiske was studying some of the ways that our brains determine how we view and interact with people, even if we do not consider ourselves to be actively sexist or sexually aggressive. I like what Fiske was quoted as saying in the Guardian: “When there are sexualised images in the workplace, it’s hard for people not to think about their female colleagues in those terms. It spills over from the images to the workplace.”
However, as a neuroscience blogger points out, this doesn’t make for a slam dunk argument that men see women in bikinis as objects. The study shows that the action part of the brain was active when exposed to these pictures, but not what that meant.
My concern is less with whether or not men objectify women in bikinis–I believe that happens–but whether or not that means women should stop wearing bikinis, which is what Rey and other modesty proponents are suggesting.
Objectification is never the fault of the person being objectified. I cannot turn myself into an object. I cannot use myself as an object. Only someone else can do that to me, and those actions are up to them, not me. Men can objectify a woman in one-piece bathing suit as easily as they can in a bikini–does that mean women should abandon swimming altogether? Of course not.
To me, this study could be useful in the same way as the Implicit Association Test, which helps people identify their unconscious prejudices against specific categories of people. When you take the test and learn that you have an intrinsic and learned prejudice toward a group of people, you figure out how to correct that. Men who view women as objects have been trained to do so by our culture, including the modesty movement. A test that proves that that happens is interesting, but it doesn’t mean that it’s okay. If men are made aware that they do this, perhaps they can work on not viewing women like objects, no matter what they are wearing.
Question #3: Are the Rey Swimswear suits modest?
Of course they are. I mean, right? They don’t show off cleavage, they don’t have high-cut legs, they have the option of an underwire. They’re certainly modest.
Except where they’re not.
Modesty is a completely subjective concept that varies from culture to culture, year to year. What we’re calling modest in the Rey Swimwear catalog would be considered obscene in some other countries or in our own past. In some ultra-conservative religious families here in the States, the swimsuits wouldn’t make the cut for modesty.
The swimsuits fight snugly to the body. I’m guessing most women would trim, wax, or shave their bikini zone before wearing one, which says to me that they’re still pretty revealing. The models wearing the suits are attractive and sexy–I think just about anyone would look pretty sexy in these bathing suits.
That’s probably why several of them resemble the super-cute and super-sexy bathing suits available at Pin-Up Girl Clothing.
Simply by changing the marketing, Rey Swimwear could be advertised as sexy and classic, not modest and adorable.
Rey’s point is that you should be able to look good and be modest at the same time, but who gets to decide what modest means?
I’ll close with an anecdote:
My daughter Ruthie is three years old, and when she has water days at daycare, she is required to wear a one-piece swimsuit or a tankini. No two-pieces. The boys, of course, get to wear their swim trunks. Now, these are kids who are young enough that they have two open bathroom stalls, side by side, and sometimes they don’t quite get their pants up before they walk over to the sink to wash their hands. These kids see each other in various stages of undress all the time. Yet we send the message from the very beginning when it comes to swimsuits: boys, it’s fine for you to be shirtless, but girls, you need to cover yourself up. The other day Ruthie and I had to have an extended conversation about why adult women aren’t generally allowed to show their nipples in public, while adult men are. Why is that, Ruthie? Because of the stupidity of modesty. Because we’ve bought into the lie that the female body is inherently sexualized: even when it is three years old, or breastfeeding, or walking down the street minding its own business.
Adding a little bit more material to a bathing suit doesn’t fix our problem. I’m glad that Jessica Rey is offering more options for women to wear what they are comfortable wearing, but if you’re going to address the problems of objectification and sexualization of all female bodies, it’s going to take a lot more than bathing suits made out of slightly more material.