Kate Upton posed for the July issue of GQ licking a popsicle, clad in a flag-print bikini. You probably looked, breathed in and out as usual, saw the sky was still blue, and went back to everything being normal. The sight of a busty blond in a flag bikini with something in her mouth on the cover of a men’s magazine is about as shocking as Lady Gaga accessorizing her studded leather harness with fringed wings.
The sex appeal in that Kate Upton cover comes not just from her bursting bust, phallic snack, or skimpy swimwear — it also comes from that flag imagery. The flag bikini is a quintessential men’s magazine look — women’s magazines definitely play with flag stuff, especially when they want to get extra-American around the Fourth and all that, but they don’t make any of their cover girls wear it in triangle top form since it’s generally perceived as tacky and anti-style. For example, when Britney Spears appeared on her first and only Vogue cover in November of 2001, red-and-white flag stripes served as a background to her clothed torso, rather than a means of barely concealing it.
Contrast that with GQ’s flag fashions, including this famous cover of Jessica Simpson for July of 2005:
And this less literally flag-y one of Rachel Bilson, for February of ‘08:
GQ is hardly alone in its tradition of using flag bikinis to rein in horny male readers around the Fourth of July (and occasionally, other times of the year). Take the shuttered George magazine, which put Gisele on the June 2000 cover in an especially minuscule and flashy flag two-piece:
What about a flag is so hot to the straight men GQ presumably made this cover for? Why this corny sort of attire? I asked a few, because most women I know would not think, “Oh, let me seduce him with this hot FLAG ensemble.” Some said flag bikinis were no more or less sexy to them than a regular bikini that barely covers a girl’s privates. Others said they were “slightly turned on” by flag-wear, but couldn’t explain why. Another, Steve, said, “I think it’s just the bikini mostly with a lack of imagination of what should be on it” — which makes some sense. A lot of average dudes, when asked to think of a sexy print for a bathing suit, probably aren’t going to say, “Oh God — paisley. That’s what I find totally hot.”
I asked Steve if the sex appeal of flag boobs had something to do with flags and patriotism figuring into stereotypically male activities like sporting events, where the national anthem is played, or because it symbolizes our manly armed forces. “Honestly, no idea,” he said. “But those are good gueses. We love to fly the flag everywhere it seems like we are awesome. Our arenas are huge, our planes are fast, our tanks are dangerous, and our women are hot.”
I asked another straight male friend, Pete, if dudes find flag bikinis sexy. “Yup,” he said. “Nothing gets your attention like a blonde girl in a flag bikini.” He’s right — it is sort of a rare sight in the wild. Maybe the inherent appeal of flag bikinis is the same that body paint, nurse costumes, lace teddies, cup-less bras, and body oil all have in common: most women don’t actually wear them.
Pete was quick to add: “Not that I’d ever date a girl who wore flag bikinis. I’d be too scared that her dad had a lot of guns.”