Is there a more feared item of clothing than the bikini?
Think about it: Every year, millions of women fear two-piece swimsuits before they even try them on in the confines of badly lit department store changing rooms. Whatever body confidence they managed to work up for that very moment dissipates as the suits seem to say: “You? Bikini body ready? AHAHAH!” The media teaches fear too: If women ever felt “bikini body ready,” whatever that means, they probably wouldn’t buy anywhere near the millions of magazines offering extreme pilates routines and stupid diet advice (does anyone ever just eat half a banana?) to get them there.
(I once asked a friend who works at a celebrity gossip magazine why Jessica Alba was popular. This editor replied, “Well, she’s got a great bikini body.”)
That fear is there constantly: Look good in this bikini — or else.
And if a woman has the temerity to be confident in a bikini, it doesn’t matter. The world still fears them. Bikinis freaked out Miss World host nation Indonesia enough that the pageant organizers decided to have competitors don “one-piece beachwear” including traditional Balinese sarongs, instead of the two pieces the competition is known for, with the goal of pleasing Muslim religious groups (who still want the pageant banned). Over in Mumbai, officials recently passed a proposal to ban the display of mannequins wearing bikinis in attempt to quell the region’s highly publicized recent string of sexual assaults. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority just banned a commercial for an internet hosting provider Dreamscape Networks starring Pamela Anderson and another buxom actress wearing gold bikinis and writhing in foam. (In that case, the agency called it “degrading to women.”)
Things aren’t necessarily simpler in the U.S. Young women were recently banished from sunbathing on the lawn of a New York City apartment building where kids play. The head of the tenants association for the building even told Yahoo she thought that all two-piece bathing suits should be banned, and, “The sunbathing is tasteless, it’s not very classy, and it doesn’t belong in a mixed residential development.” And the main thing standing between Beyonce and her feminist stripes seems to be the bikini-sized costumes she wears on stage.
As much as women have united to decry slut-shaming, the world remains as fearful of their bodies as it is enraptured by them. Jennifer Lopez is slammed for dancing on television wearing a leotard over what are essentially flesh-colored leggings, while Kate Upton’s breasts become a celebrated viral news story just about every week. We cheer Pamela Anderson’s incredible body, as seen in what I guess you’d call two-piece swimwear in Brazilian Vogue, and marvel at Gisele’s post-baby bikini body on the cover of that very magazine. At the same time, many viewers felt disgusted by female performers wearing tight, sheer clothes in the recent Chime for Change concert in London, and the Huffington Post found it “stressful” wondering how Gwyneth Paltrow wore underwear under her infamous gown with the sheer sides.
And feminists may hate beauty pageants, but ultimately the Miss World bikini ban has been deemed “no victory” for them.
What some deem a correction of demeaning attire is just slut-shaming to others. And what seems empowering to Rihanna seems woefully submissive to many of her fans. But the world has no reason to fear bikinis or other skimpy clothes these days any more than it does lazy sunbathers on a public lawn.
The real danger is the insistence that female power comes from one style of dress or the other. Empowerment takes many different forms. Tilda Swinton might feel like her most empowered self in a pair of pajamas, while Beyonce might feel like her most empowered self in a pair of leather hot pants and a bra top. The bikini backlash refutes that very notion — it’s a symbol of the double standards feminism has hardly erased.
We’re not really protecting anyone by encouraging a culture of fear surrounding the bikini. It’s hard enough being afraid of the way you look in a dressing room mirror. Women certainly can’t please everyone, and it’s time to stop making them feel like they have to.