My Facebook feed exploded recently with a video by Jessica Rey promoting her modest swimsuit line and educating the masses on the “evolution of the bikini.” For several minutes, she describes Victorian swimsuits, repeating not-so-subtle racist and sexist remarks from the past. Did you know bikinis were once considered something “only licentious Mediterranean-types” would wear? I didn’t. But I wouldn’t use the often xenophobic and misogynist viewpoints of the past to promote a product, either.
Then, Rey declares that dressing modestly is the best way for women to “reveal their dignity” and gain respect—instead of objectification—from men. She backs her claim by citing a Princeton study in which men were shown pictures of bikini-clad women and processed the images of women as objects.
Almost as quickly as my conservative friends could say “Modest is hottest!”, my Facebook feed filled up with rebuttals. Many pointed out that the study Rey hinges her argument on included a sample size of only 21 men, and of those 21 men, only men already identified as “hostile” sexists identified a woman in a bikini as an object. Sexist men see women as objects? Stop the presses.
I don’t disagree with Jessica Rey that our society objectifies women. From a fashion industry that values the woman most resembling a clothing hanger to politicians who turn reproductive organs into campaign platforms, women are frequently seen as objects for men to manipulate. But the idea that women are only “dignified” when wearing certain clothes also teaches girls and women that their bodies are objects—scary objects, used to torment men.
And in discussing how modesty rhetoric hurts women, we can’t overlook the idea that sexism and misogyny is just as damaging to men as it is to women. In scenarios that stress the importance of modesty, not only are women objects, but men also are dehumanized or no longer considered adults capable of reason.
Pieces I’ve written online about modesty have elicited scads of comments defending the concept—comparing the female body to something precious that needs to be hidden from men, or making the argument that wearing tank tops or short skirts or whatever is “like putting meat in front of a wolf and asking him not to eat it!” One woman compared dressing a child in “immodest” clothing to leaving sharp objects in the presence of children, then acting surprised when they cut themselves.
The notion that men are animals and cannot control their responses to visual stimuli creates a culture of rape apologists. And insisting that women need to dress modestly so that men will be able to control their animal instincts creates a difficult situation for men who truly want to respect women. On one hand, “real men” are supposed to find women sexually attractive, while simultaneously acting like fairy-tale knights, rescuing women from the “pigs” who objectify their bodies.
These are good guys, who grow up genuinely wanting to respect women. These are the boys I went to church with, who testified about how grateful they were for modest girls because they want so badly to be respectful. But they’ve played into the system that labels them as inevitable sexual assailants if a woman wears too little. One wrong move, or bikini, and the knight turns into a rapist. This idea of manhood both glorifies and criminalizes their existence as sexual beings, since all “real men” respond the same way to all visual stimuli, and all “good girls” dress modestly to prevent those responses.
Modesty fanatics say that men are less likely to objectify or rape you if you dress a certain way, but that simply isn’t true. The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate the bikini, but to eliminate the hostile attitudes toward male and female sexuality. Remember, only men who already harbored feelings of “hostile sexism” toward women saw those wearing bikinis as objects.
It’s bad for sales of modest swimwear, but the real solution doesn’t lie in a one-piece. It lies in seeing both men and women as people, not objects or animals. Instead of criminalizing men by insisting that “real men” need modest women in order to behave, we need to expand the definition of masculinity and what “real men” are capable of in terms of human decency. It isn’t sexy or manly to think “modest is the hottest,” or assume that a woman is “asking for it.” True masculinity should mean seeing women as more than just their bodies or their clothes.
In Rey’s history of the bikini, she argues that the woman in the “itsy-bitsy teeny-weenie yellow polka-
dot bikini” song doesn’t want to come out of the locker because she is inherently modest and knows somehow that a bikini is “undignified.” I’d argue that she doesn’t want to come out because she’s afraid: afraid of the judgment of a society that alternately condemns and commodifies her sexuality, and afraid that a man will see her fashion choice as a form of consent to sexual harassment. Similarly, we’ve taught good men to be afraid of women, to see them as manipulators of their choices, somehow able to turn them, Hulk-style, into sexist pigs/rapists with a single two-piece.
It’s this fear, not our belly buttons, that we need to banish from our beaches and society.