Don't Blame the Bikini, Blame the Bikini Culture
Editor's note: This post begins with a section by Sharon Hodde Miller, followed by Caryn Rivadeneira and Rachel Marie Stone, then concluded by Sharon.
Swimsuit designer Jessica Rey's presentation "Evolution of the Swimsuit," given at the most recent Q conference, has certainly grabbed Christians' attention. In it, she traces the historical development of the itsy-bitsy bikinis that have gone from unthinkably scandalous to completely normalized in a matter of decades. Her presentation also addresses—though indirectly—the power of culture to shape our vision, particularly our view of the female body.
In her talk, Rey shares data from a neurological study of the male brain:
Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tools, such as screw drivers and hammers, lit up. Some men showed zero brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that lights up when one ponders another person's thoughts, feelings, and intentions.
These findings are significant, but they also beg an important question: Why do men perceive women's bodies this way? Scientific findings show that the brain is essentially plastic. It can be shaped and formed and changed by our environments. This means that not all neurological responses are hardwired. Some are conditioned.
In the case of women's bodies, it's very possible that men have been conditioned by culture to have a Pavlovian response. Just as dogs grew conditioned to be stimulated by the ring of a bell, our culture has trained men to respond in certain ways to the sight of a female body. This conditioning becomes most apparent in comparison with non-Western cultures, where modesty standards differ.
Western culture conditions our brains with a very particular image of women, seen on TV, the Internet, magazine covers, catalogs, or billboards, where women are portrayed as beautiful objects, or seductresses. Even the most wholesome images communicate this message, using a beautiful female face or slim figure to draw our attention.
Undoubtedly, Rey brought attention to important data. When men associate the female body with objects, not just theoretically but neurologically, we can be sure that our culture is sick. However, additional neurological research points to a societal dysfunction that runs far deeper than bikinis. When men associate the imago dei in women with an inanimate tool, then a more comprehensive restoration is in order, one that promotes theological correction, cultural healing, and renewed vision. To this end, we need to dig a bit deeper.
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