This video of Jessica Rey, founder of Rey Swimwear, giving a talk at Q about why she decided to create her own swimwear line has been circulating throughout the past few weeks. It’s come up here and there, with various women in my social networks introducing it as “something to think about,” even if they don’t quite agree.
While I admire Rey’s initiative in creating clothes that she liked and that made her feel comfortable, I am happy to report that I am not at all on the fence in regards to her position on more revealing swimming attire. I wanted to share my thoughts on some of the statistics she presents and address a few of her points about ownership over one’s body and sexuality.
She opens with the lyrics of the 1960s novelty hit Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, which describes a girl who “was afraid to come out in the open/And so she sat bundled up on the shore”. While her lesson in fashion history is interesting, my concern is her analysis of the relationship between the sexual revolution and the rising popularity of the bikini, initially scandalous and unpopular. “The rise in popularity,” she says, “has been attributed to the power of women, not the power of fashion,” and to a certain extent, I agree. The power of women’s demonstrations have taken us from conversations about showing the belly button, to conversations about women going topless in the streets.
As a body-positive anti-fat-shaming feminist, my conclusion here is that if the girl in the song wanted to wear a bikini, she should be able to. However, Rey connects this necessity to hide women’s bodies (while it has historically been far more acceptable for men to show more skin in the West) to problems of misogynistic objectification of women’s bodies.
She references a Princeton study quantitatively measuring the chemical reaction in the minds of male students when they viewed women dressed in more revealing clothing versus women who were more covered up.
The results of the study are that when viewing pictures of “scantily clad” women, the region of the brain associated with using tools lit up, with less activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex, “the part of the brain,” Rey explains, “that lights up when one ponders another person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions.” Basically, when they saw women in itsy-bitsy teeny-weenie anything, it was like they weren’t seeing another human being. Rey concludes, “wearing a bikini does give a woman power, the power to shut down a man’s ability to see her as a person … This is surely not the kind of power women were searching for.” This is where she really loses me.
In conversations about rape, it has become pretty common to bring up clothing choice as a poor excuse for the perpetrator and use it as an example for problematic victim-blaming. While it has found it’s place in the rhetoric of criticizing rape culture, I think it is more difficult to effectively articulate why blaming women’s clothing choices for their objectification is also problematic. How do you explain to a misogynist that just because I am wearing shorts doesn’t mean you should leer at my bare legs? While I myself have had trouble making this poinnt to male and female acquaintances, I think Rey’s solution misses the mark.
Instead of addressing why men’s brains react this way, what part of their experience fuels this kind of reaction, how that reaction is reinforced and underpinned through language and culture and media consumption, or, most importantly, how we can shift the way young men and boys grow up thinking about women and their relationships with women through interrogation of socially enforced constructions of gender, Rey says women should just cover up. In fact, she has created an entire swimwear line to allow women to be taken more seriously on the beach and at the poolside, without ever challenging tropes of masculinity and their effect on the way boys perceive women.
I personally believe that you should show only as much skin as you are comfortable with. That includes anything and everything from teeny bikinis at the beach to jeans rolled up with your feet in the pool. As long it is what you want to wear and it makes you feel good, you should wear it. You should not have to police your wardrobe in order for people to consider you a real human being. If they don’t, the problem is with them, not with you.
I do not think that women have a “natural sense of modesty … that has been stripped away by today’s culture.” I think we live in a culture where dressing too conservatively makes you unattractive but dressing revealingly makes you a slut. This double standard will not be shifted by whether or not I choose to rock a one-piece this summer.
I think by speaking to young girls to try and “bring back” this lost sense of natural modesty we will be perpetuating one side of the patriarchal coin, that revealing clothes are bad and slut-shaming is a logical response to girls who prefer bikinis over the admittedly cute designs Rey has come up with.
We need to stop teaching girls that if a man doesn’t see you as a real person instead of an sexual object it is their fault or their responsibility to change the way they dress. Putting the onus on women to compensate for objectification does not give them any kind of power, it gives them culpability. If we want to shift gendered systems of power we need to start teaching boys to see women, regardless of clothing, as human beings.
Haseena is a recent graduate of York University with an Honours BA in Linguistics and Women’s Studies. Haseena enjoys exploring the relationship between language and culture and how that relates to issues of gender, sexuality and oppression. You can find more of Haseena’s posts here.