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.
- Sharon Hodde Miller
I'm getting a little tired of seeing modesty refer to the clothes we wear. Modesty—and conversely, sexiness—is communicated through our body language and attitude, not so much what we wear or how much skin we expose.
Those who are "worried" about the male reaction to the female form need to remember that men will still find women in conservative, one-piece, adorable Jessica Rey swimsuits sexy, while not every woman in a bikini will be a turn-on. There's no hard-and-fast-rule for how we guard our beach bods from the male gaze. And I'm not sure there should be.
Women getting noticed by men for their looks isn't automatically cause for outrage. Far from it! It's not wrong for a man to notice a beautiful woman, her face, or even her body. We were all made to notice and appreciate beauty in all its various forms (thank God for that). It's what the man does with his "noticing" that can cause trouble, but that's not a woman's responsibility.
For instance—and this is not a perfect illustration as I'm comparing an object to a human—it's not wrong for me to notice a beautiful home, to be drawn to its come-hither wrap-around porch or its curving turrets or bulging bay windows. It's when I start coveting it—or berating myself (or God) for not selling enough books to afford it—that the problem starts. But it's not owner of the beautiful home's fault. The owner shouldn't be forced to "cover up" her house so I don't sin in my covetousness. House envy is my issue to own. And lusting after a woman's body is a man's issue to own. Let's let them own it.
If women seek to be truly modest, let's adjust attitudes, not wardrobes. Let's seek to honor God with how we carry ourselves, how we present and respect ourselves, and how we view and celebrate our beauty.
I still believe that wearing a bikini can do all these things. Bikinis provide a wonderful way to celebrate the female form that God created as good. As I wrote for ThinkChristian:
…in bikinis, we declare our bodies to be enough - just as they are. And whether our bodies are taut or flabby, whether they're prime or well past it, standing confidently in a bikini declares our God-crafted bodies as beautiful and good. And in turn, we proclaim other women's bodies are also good.
When we can proclaim this - in this world that has so long sought to shame women and our bodies - we worship God with our physicality. Not only because it's a physical expression of the vulnerability and humility and grace we're called to share, but because when more of our skin tingles at the touch of the stinging salt or crisp chlorine or warms under the sun's baking rays, our bodies glory in God's creation in ways they normally don't and historically could not.
- Caryn Rivadeneira
Today's modesty discussion happens to coincide with a resurgence in retro-inspired fashion. I love it. My bookshelf holds a basket of vintage sewing patterns and a gorgeous old McCall's sewing book showing how to adjust printed patterns to conform to your body shape, how to make lovely flat-felled seams, and how properly to line a dress. I feel a strong nostalgic pull not just to the designs of the late '50s and early '60s, but also to the beautifully crafted execution of vintage garments.
As anyone who has ever visited ModCloth.com or an Anthropologie knows, these looks are enormously popular right now—"on the streets of Brooklyn and San Francisco and Austin and Chicago, fashionable 20-and-30-somethings walk around looking like they popped out of a cosmic wormhole from 1963 or 1944 or 1922," writes Emily Matchar in Homeward Bound.
Jessica Rey's line of swimwear—made in the USA and inspired by the "style, grace, class and fun" of Audrey Hepburn—falls into this category. Though there's photographic evidence that Hepburn wore the bikinis Rey's line consciously avoids, she invokes Hepburn with what seems like a kind of modesty nostalgia—this sense that, if we could just somehow get back to the feminine fashions of mid-century and before, we can somehow undo the sexual revolution and all that it entailed.
It's easy to feel nostalgia for Audrey Hepburn's style, and the days before the itsy bitsy, teenie weenie yellow polka-dot bikini, but only if we forget that Hepburn was a likely anorexic and a smoker who suffered multiple miscarriages and several divorces. We must ignore that the days before the bikini were also the days during which it was not only acceptable for job advertisements to specify that secretaries be pretty and also perfectly legal to discriminate against them on the basis of their skin color.
The nostalgic fashions of the moment allow us to cover more skin and still be chic, but that by itself is no guarantee of, well, anything. Even if they seem to recall a more innocent time, cute ruffles, higher necklines, and skirts can't do justice and mercy and humility for us. No matter how retro-fabulous, the clothes do not make the woman.
- Rachel Marie Stone
When it comes to modesty, it's easy to get sidetracked by the debate. Questions like "How modest is modest enough?" or "When is modesty becoming legalism?" can paralyze and undermine change. In this respect, I appreciate Rey taking action. She saw a problem and offered a solution by designing modest swimwear. We need more of that initiative in the church.
However—and I think Rey would affirm this truth—real change must begin with a biblical view of the body, both its nature and its created end. We can and should teach young women to dress in a manner consistent with their Christian souls, but it is only when we take responsibility for the fact that we, as the church, have denigrated God's creation by objectifying her and exploiting her, sometimes under the guise of righteousness or the excuse of helplessness, that real change can happen. Only when we each repent, men and women alike, for what we have done to the image of God in women, will renewal happen. Until we do, conservative attire will have as much Kingdom value as a white-washed tomb.
- Sharon Hodde Miller
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