A recent viral YouTube video with a talk by swimwear designer Jessica Rey is making the rounds, where Rey essentially says “Cover it up, ladies! Men cannot control their gaze, so we better hide our bits from them!” Rey seems like a lovely woman with her heart in the right place, but I think where she places responsibility for the “problem” of immodesty is all wrong.
Rey cites studies that show the areas of the men’s brains that respond to the sight of a woman in a bikini are the same as those that respond to inanimate objects like tools. She concludes that men objectify women in bikinis. She then puts forth the idea that women should cover up to avoid this and be empowered by fashionable modesty. Fellow lady economist Bobbie Jo had this wise response in a discussion we had, “the more women are encouraged to be modest, the more men are given an excuse to abuse us if they decide we aren’t.” It may not be a straight line, but the line between attitudes about women’s dress and outward appearance are linked to what we think is acceptable behavior/actions towards women, and who is responsible for these behaviors or actions when she was dressed like she was asking for it.
Another basic point behind this anti-bikini speech is that bikinis are worn at the beach or in the park to sunbathe, not at a job interview. I’m a firm believer in appropriate dress for appropriate places. I once got a stern talking to from my (female, if it matters) boss at a business dress office job about my clothes, and then a second one when I apparently hadn’t fully incorporated the advice. But ultimately I came around to her point. Maybe if I’m dealing with clients or members who want to be taken seriously themselves, I should also dress “seriously” or at least professional and relatively modest to show them I respect them and I think the work I do for them is serious. I would not wear a bikini to work, I promise. The idea of dressing appropriate extends to some other venues and circumstances. Generally speaking, women (or men) probably shouldn’t wear booty shorts that say “juicy” on the behind to funerals. Furthermore, people, please honor theme parties dress code. I hate when people don’t do that. Where you are dressing how you are dressing matters to some extent, within reason. You are showing those circumstances a certain level of understanding by dressing for them. It is not about how others see you in those places, but about who you want to project – which for the most part (except business dress office settings and funerals) should be projecting a sense of “I don’t give a fuck what random people think of me. My value is not my sexuality.” And dammit, the beach or the park is an appropriate context for bikinis. Get some sun on that skin. Learn to love your skin enough to have it be visible when you want it to be for yourself.
Rey’s view of modesty is also pretty ethnocentric – a point I’m admittedly stealing from a facebook discussion about this video. She portrays her version of modesty as natural, fashionable and modern. This bar she sets is based very much in Western culture. Cultural relativism shapes what we see as a “natural” level of modesty, and these change across geographies and times. She talks about what women wore to the beach at the turn of the 20th century as modesty gone too far, compared to bikinis as not modest enough. However, those 1900s bathing suits probably don’t seem so odd to more modest cultures like conservative Islamic ones. At the same time, there are still tribal cultures throughout the world where some nudity or minimal clothing is very much the norm. Are men in certain African tribal villages so distracted by the commonplace site of a woman’s breasts that they can only view her as an object for sexualization? Do the objectification lobes of their brains also light up, like in the study Rey cites, when they see a lot of a lady’s skin? (Albeit, some of these societies have horrible patriarchal customs entirely separate from the concept of dressing modestly, but also related to controlling women’s sexuality.)
There is a lot to get into here. Feel free get angry in the comments section.
p.s. For the record, I actually wear a one piece bathing suit anyway.