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Home / Articles / Opinion / Editorial /  Sexy Swimsuits Aren't the Problem

Sexy Swimsuits Aren't the Problem

Eliminate hostile attitudes toward sexuality, not bikinis

By Stephanie Lauritzen
Posted // July 10,2013 -

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. 

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Post a comment
Posted // July 23,2013 at 09:19

I agree that women should be able to wear what they want without being objectified, but truth be told, women sometimes want to be noticed by men when they dress that way.   I know, I'm a woman who likes to be noticed sometimes by the opposite sex.    Some times I want to wear a bikinni though, just because it feels good to have the sun on my body.   If the binkini isn't about male attention though, lets just be open to anyone one fat, thin, old, young wearing one.   It seems like theres a stigma where only hot women are allowed to wear them without judgement.   I've been to hot springs and other environments where nudity is common and sexual objectification really is taboo and guess what you see every body type imaginable becuasue it's really just about enjoying nature and being comfortable, not sex, unlike bikinnis.

BTW those "modest" swim suitsa re super cute and I've thought about buying one.   Have you guys checked out the web site?  How awesome that women who CHOOSE to dress modestly have the option of doing so in style.


Posted // July 23,2013 at 02:36

I agree with a lot of this article, and am someone who chooses to dress "modestly" (in my eyes) for my religion, but wish the author wouldn't have taken such an "all or nothing" approach.  Not all women and men who dress "modestly" are who the author paints us out to be.  

I agree that we should teach men and women that people are not just a body to be looked at, and that we should never judge or shame someone over their bodies, or because of what they are wearing. It's what's on the inside that counts right?? I think this starts by rejecting media/advertising/social norms that tells us that women are only objects to be looked at, and that men are mindless pigs.  I don't think anyone can argue that media doesn't influence the way the American people think as a whole.  

I choose to dress and act in a way that I think is "modest" because that's one way I choose to show respect to God for the body and soul he gave me. Others may show their respect to God in other ways, and I respect that. An added bonus of this is that I think it makes it easier for the men I associate with to focus on who I am as a person, which is what most people want anyway, right? (I'm not responsible for anyone's thoughts, and me dressing the way I do still might not do what I hope it does. . . I know this, there are lots of variables here) I in turn appreciate it when the men I associate with dress and act modestly, as it helps me focus on who they really are. . . . for me, it's about mutual respect betweenn men and women.  

Just wanted to share a different perspective.   


Posted // July 13,2013 at 12:13

I think this merits a new group of apologists for the times I objectify men I see running around shirtless at the beach.   


Posted // July 14,2013 at 07:09 - I still think having children in bikinis is a bad idea.


Posted // July 12,2013 at 14:16
We live in a world where perception is everything in our social structure. What we wear often says something about who we are. The problem is how others interpret what we wear. To one a sexy bikini says "sexually liberated" to another it says "slut". The worst thing is that many who dress according to social standards use it as a smoke screen to hide their own "socially unacceptable" iniquities. It truly is better to look good rather than actually be good. Perception is everything. . . I really hate this about society.


Posted // July 23,2013 at 09:07 - I disagree. Children are not sexual at all. They are children. They should be able to run around butt naked if they want and in many places they do. Actually in most places they do, such as Europe, south America, Asia ect. Go to a beach and you'll be hard pressed to see a kid with cloths on, because most people there are not pervs who sexualize children. And guess what putting a burka on you little kid isn't going to stop some pedophile (your brother) from having dirty thoughts. Just don't leave your kid alone with their creepy uncle, that'll protect them much more effectively.


Posted // July 23,2013 at 00:19 - I put my girls in bikinis because of the fact that It's so much easier for bathroom times. My girls now choose them for the same reason.


Posted // July 11,2013 at 16:47

Don't forget that in that study, the picture of women in bikinis were shown from the neck down. . . . hence the majority of the reason that the men's brains registrered them as objects. Without a face, most brains do the same thing.