Bikinis vs. one-pieces: the debate over swimsuits is not actually about swimsuits

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?

Gertrude Ederle in 1926

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.

Fatkini designer and blogger Gabi Gregg

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?

47 responses to “Bikinis vs. one-pieces: the debate over swimsuits is not actually about swimsuits

  1. Your last two sentences say it all: “At this point in my life, I really only dress to please myself. What can possibly be more feminist than that?” Bravo.

  2. Fantastic post. 🙂 I, too, grow weary of the debates concerning how women choose to dress. The whole “dress like a slut, get treated like a slut” line of thinking is one which is so deeply embedded in our culture that I despair of us ever getting it out..but policing ourselves and others certainly isn’t going to do it.

    As for me, I love both bikinis and one-pieces. When I want to tan or look nice, I wear a bikini. If I want to swim–and I LOVE to swim–then I wear a one-piece so I’m more comfortable and don’t have to worry about accidental boob pop-outs. It’s just that simple.

    • “The whole “dress like a slut, get treated like a slut” line of thinking is one which is so deeply embedded in our culture that I despair of us ever getting it out..but policing ourselves and others certainly isn’t going to do it.”

      I haaaate that line. It doesn’t even make sense! I mean, if you wear a tool belt, I might think you’re tradie, but that doesn’t mean I have the right to jump out of my car and force you to come home with me and build me a deck.

  3. I prefer to swim au naturel, without any suit at all:

    When that’s not an option, I wear my sexy one-piece white, black and hot pink triathlon suit in which I can also cycle and run – multipurpose, purpose-built, and deliciously comfortable (not to mention oh la la!).

    And, for the record, I wear whatever I please whenever I please, just as long as I feel great, look great and am every bit my sensuous sexy self:

    Be your own fashion trend.

  4. Love your thoughtful, thorough reflection on this issue. The fatkini reminds me of that scene in Katy Perry’s video of “Firework” when the full-size girl strips off to her bikini and jumps into the pool. It’s so inspiring and we’re cheering for her. Thank you so much for providing another way of looking at bikinis in the aftermath of Jessica Ray’s talk.

  5. There are no words great enough to describe how much I love this post. You have said everything I have thought about ‘modest dress’ and how men are these poor, powerless creatures when exposed to any of our female flesh. Thank you for giving voice to the idea that we – and most importantly for me, my daughter- should dress to please ourselves, and not feel responsible for the thoughts of the anonymous hordes.

    • Thank you! Yes, it gets very tiresome having to anticipate how every single person in the general vicinity is going to receive my every move and decision. I keep thinking that’s what my utopia will be like – a world in which people are free to make decisions for themselves without having to endlessly analyze them for maximum acceptability.

  6. I agree, this post is great.

    Also agree that it’s not about the swimsuit. I’m not a bikini person*, mostly because my autism means I really, REALLY hate having things touch my skin, and this is especially true of my stomach. But I know that bikinis definitely have uses, even not taking into account the perfectly valid “I wear a bikini because I want to” aspect of it! Like, I can appreciate being able to get tops and bottoms in different sizes, as a woman with gigantic shoulders and narrowish hips. (My primary motivation in buying swimsuits is, “Will it stay on me while I’m burning up the lap lane?”, which also tends to make me favor one-pieces but at the same time lets me see how helpful the ability to get different-sized tops and bottoms would be.)

    *Something like this is probably my ideal swimsuit.

    • Oh yeah, I see competitive swimmers and triathletes in those all the time! They look like they would keep everything strapped down nicely while also lowering the amount of drag in the water by compressing your body. I’ve always been curious about swimming with a suit like that. Not that I am so fast that a suit is going to make more of a difference than actually swimming more and maybe getting some damn lessons already…

      My big issue with one-pieces has generally been the vertical fit. I’m tall with a longish torso, and so you can imagine the problems that crop up with THAT.

  7. Great post, I like it a lot. I usually have no problem wearing a bikini while swimming, but sometimes I feel a bit awkward wearing my bikini at my own apartment’s pool. There are lots of women here who are recent immigrants from countries where women dress more conservatively. These women usually sit at the side of the pool while their kids play. For some reason, wearing a bikini in front of these more traditional (non-Western) women makes be feel awkward. It just seems easier to cover up than to challenge people who are not as accustomed to Western culture.

    What do you think of this? The feminist in me says that it shouldn’t make a difference, but somehow the culture and age distinction makes a difference to me. I don’t have a problem wearing a bikini at public pools with people my age, but I have reservations when the people there are older and grew up in a more conservative culture.

    • This is really tangential to the topic of Caitlin’s post, but I’ve kinda wondered the same thing. I realized a few years ago that I was vaguely uncomfortable going into my local convenience store in the summer wearing shorts or a shirt that showed any cleavage solely because I knew the employees were Muslim and I had some kind of weird feeling that my clothing would be offensive to them. Of course then I realized that showing my forearms or my uncovered hair probably seems just as risque, so I really couldn’t worry too much about it. But I still wonder. If someone comes to America from a culture/country where women dress extremely modestly, are our normal Western clothes offensive and scandalous to them? Or are they, “meh, Americans, that’s what they wear, can’t expect them to dress like us”?

      • I spent a couple of days thinking about this and I honestly have no idea. I have lived in complexes alongside women who dressed modestly at the pool, but I never opted to cover up because I figure they are probably used to seeing bare female skin, considering where we live and all.

        It does remind me of a few times I have traveled to Utah in the summer and worn a bikini while at a hotel pool or something. I still remember one time in Park City, I was the only woman in a bikini (and also the only woman without a child). I did feel self-conscious but at the same time I also felt a bit defiant about it. I’d let those religious norms dictate my behavior for so long that I wasn’t going to continue to acquiesce even after I’d left the religion behind. That was the entire point of leaving the religion, so I could make my own choices about these things. So I guess that might be why I haven’t ever really felt the need to modify my clothing choices to adhere to other people’s religious or cultural norms.

        That said, if I were to visit some place in the Middle East, perhaps, I would be more circumspect about keeping myself covered, mainly for pragmatic reasons, but when I am in the U.S., not so much.

  8. Neat. I’ve been following you for a while now. Had to comment as I am also a former mormon girl. I can relate to those feelings of liberation. Although that has nothing to do with why I don’t wear a bikini. I just don’t like my tummy and the ginormous appendix scar (from when it ruptured at age 13…that was fun). But I have a super long torso and short stubby legs, so one pieces usually are very uncomfortable. I go with tankinis, to highlight my favorite body features and camouflage my not so favorite features so that I *gasp* feel as comfortable and confident as possible.

    I adore those little boy shorts for running, except my thighs touch a lot. When I run, if I don’t have fabric between my thighs, they chafe. boo.

  9. Spot on. How about its about whatever makes you feel good and serves your purposes on the beach? I rock a bikini at the beach and during tris, not to be immodest or because I feel pressure to show my stuff for all the dudes around, but because its the most comfortable thing for me to wear while I’m swimming, paddleboarding, surfing, running, etc. It frees me body up to move the way I need it to while keeping everything in place and supported.

  10. Thank you for this, Caitllin. I need to reread it every six weeks.

    As yet another ex-Mormon commenter, I don’t take the feeling of breezes and sunshine on my shoulders for granted. I finally bought my first bikini this summer.

    You’d think the fact that swimsuits barely cover our genitals would be more controversial than belly coverage, wouldn’t you?

    • YOU WOULD THINK. Seriously, crotches are on display everywhere! And yet it is the belly that everyone has heart attacks over.

      “As yet another ex-Mormon commenter, I don’t take the feeling of breezes and sunshine on my shoulders for granted. I finally bought my first bikini this summer.”

      Good for you. I know a lot of women who have been raised in secular society might scoff at the idea that shorts and tank tops can feel like liberation, but those of us who have been on the other side know how freeing it can be to have bare skin in public.

  11. I so love your blog posts. So thoughtful, and so full of ideas sometimes I have yet to even think of, or at least consciously know I’m thinking of them. So first of all, I’m so in need of your confidence! I work out like crazy and a size 2-4 and guess what, I have no confidence to wear a swimsuit at all, let along a bikini or a one piece. If I have to, around my family, the one piece wins. I bought an Athletic-like 2 piece recently thinking I would be ok with that, and I still hide when I’m in it, or don’t leave the house. So maybe I worry about what others will think because I’m not perfect. I see bumps and lumps where probably others don’t. I wish I was like the gals wearing those fatkini’s who love their bodies and don’t care at all about being out in public, showcasing their individuality….that’s pretty awesome. I see magazines that claim to make someone “bikini ready in 30 days!” or whatever, and I’m thinking, ok, I work out like a fiend and am not bikini-ready, and this has been years. Maybe it is all the outside influences you mention that play into my not wanting to deal with it all….so I avoid wearing them as much as possible. Maybe I should look into Rey’s styles? Anyway, thank you again Caitlin….

    • Hey Robin, sorry it took me a few days to respond, but I was thinking about your comment and wanted to respond. Anyway, I would say you should definitely look at Rey’s styles, because life is too short to not do things that you want to do, just because you feel self-conscious about your body. So if wearing a more modest swimsuit helps you accomplish that, then by all means, do it.

      Regarding my own confidence, can I tell you a couple of things that have helped me? I mean, besides getting older and finding it harder to give a shit about what other people think of me? One thing has been ditching women’s magazines – fitness, beauty and otherwise – entirely. I never felt adequate compared to the women in magazines, which is understandable considering that they have access to makeup, airbrushing, lighting, stylists, etc. Getting rid of them has done wonders for my self-confidence. It didn’t matter how much I told myself that it was all fake and meant to project a fantasy, because the emotional reaction the images provoked happened no matter how much I intellectualized them. So, I’ve just found it easier to stop paying for them.

      The second part is that I live in an area where most everyone goes to the beach all the time, and so I will see women with all kinds of bodies and of all ages out in their bathing suits, all of them relaxed and having a good time. Last weekend, for instance, I saw a pregnant lady in a bikini, I saw a ton of retired women in their one-pieces with ruffles and skirts around the hips, moms in tankinis, teenagers in bikinis, you name it. Everyone is so relaxed and enjoying themselves that I would be shocked if anyone was paying attention to anyone else, especially to nitpick at people’s bodies. It takes something severely shocking – like the old man who gallops up and down the beach in a lime-green g-string – to really turn people’s heads. (And by the way, more power to that dude.) It’s even more blatant in South Beach, where you will see women with bodies that are not “bikini ready” according to the magazines, and yet they are tromping around in glittery bikinis and heels and dangly earrings, looking totally, totally hot.

      The final part is that I have gotten to a point in my life where I understand that the kind of person who is going to scrutinize the bodies of strangers is generally a very sad, damaged person, and that their need to criticize other people’s bodies is more about their own insecurities and their own issues than it is about anything that is wrong with the person they are criticizing. That’s knowledge that has only come with time and experience, though.

      I hope this is a tiny bit helpful. I know it’s hard work but it’s definitely worth it in the end.

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  13. Of course, there are pros and cons to each—but today, I’am firmly declaring my allegiance to the one-piece. Why? Well, it’s versatile, it’s comfortable and it’s simple.

  14. Oh gosh, yes, so much this.
    As the child of a conservative Catholic I grew up with one-piece swimwear, which, well, I hate. I find that it never fits (I take different sizes top and bottom in a bikini) and also it’s a total pig to go to the loo in.

    So I wear bikinis most of the time in the pool. I can do serious distance swimming, I can dive, I can play on water slides… I have yet to have a *ahem* wardrobe malfunction. It suits me.

    However sometimes when I go to the beach and it’s super sunny I find myself wishing I had a more modest swimming outfit to protect me from getting horrible sunburn.

  15. Lots of interesting discussion. I’d add in one side note thought: function is an important consideration. I’m a scuba instructor, over the years I’ve had several incidents where a loosely tied bikini resulted in an underwater wardrobe malfunction during class (gear removal and replacement underwater).

    • Yikes! Good point about diving. I’m surprised that there are women who thought going scuba diving in a bikini that ties was a good idea but then I guess there has never been a shortage of people who make poor decisions in the world.

  16. When one exercises, a woman really has to dress for comfort and movement. If a bikini achieves that, great. If not, then something more secure so swimmer doesn’t even have to think about what she is wearing.

  17. This is a good point. I suspect that articles of clothing resembling what is now called a bikini have been around since Adam and Eve, Fred Flintstone, or whoever it was that first felt a need to cover part of the body.

    As you say, if men are such dogs that we will go on rampage of rape at the site of a woman in a bikini, short skirt, etc., then does having a long skirt or one-piece really change anything? This is what they believe, and practice in many parts of the middle east. Young men and young women are taught this, and both act upon it. Men rape and blame women for it. The only real solution to this problem is to execute all who rape, murder, or engage in human traficking (kidnapping). That is the only way to teach respect for human life and human rights.

  18. As a tall, busty woman with a really small rib cage and a fairly small bum, it is essentially impossible to find one piece swimsuits that provide any sort of support while also being long enough to fit me comfortably. Knowing that I can order bikinis that are made in my size(s) is liberating. I love being in the water and I think I deserve the freedom to swim without feeling like I don’t fit in my suit; wearing a bikini means that I can focus on swimming and not what I’m wearing. There are plenty of women who are the opposite and feel much more at ease in a one piece, and neither of us is any more right/wrong and neither of us should feel shamed for our swimwear choices. I had not seen Rey’s video before, but I am aghast that she travels around sharing her oppressive message with teenagers. Perhaps she should be helping them to feel more comfortable in their bodies and show a greater level of respect for one another as human beings. You are definitely correct that it isn’t about the swimsuit.

    I only came across your blog for the first time today, but I will definitely be back. Great read!

    • Yep, I felt like Rey really missed an opportunity to promote her product – which I actually think is really great – without engaging in all of that weird slut-shaming that in turn supports the very thing she claims to be fighting against.

      Also, thanks for commenting, and I look forward to hearing more from you!

  19. Hi, I just wanted to point out that feminism is about gaining equal rights with men (mostly) and to do that most men have to see you in a different way. As a man who supports women’s rights but is more conservative then most I have to say I respect an individual woman more if she is dressed modestly. That isn’t to say I disrespect a bikini clad woman, I just think the way to win a war is by small battles. So while a bikini makes you feel grate, and I applaud that, relies men, an some women, will gravitate to a sexual urge when they see some parts of the body. I know it could be blown off as ‘men need to control them selves. But honestly shouldn’t we all try for more modesty?

    • Dude, you basically said you respect women provided they dress the way you want them to. You really, really need to think a little harder about what it is you are saying, because it is basically the opposite of supporting women’s rights.

      And no, I don’t think people need to “try for more modesty.” I think people need to learn how to act like mature human beings and take some personal responsibility for their actions. Good lord.

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