There has been a video making the rounds on the Internet lately, entitled, “The evolution of the swim suit [sic].” It depicts a 10-minute presentation by Jessica Rey, the founder of Rey Swimwear, that explains why her line of products serves as a solution to a number of problems that she believes are caused by the mass popularity of bikinis. As of this posting it has surpassed 600,000 views.
Unfortunately, Ms. Rey’s argument, though sincere and very well-intentioned, stands poorly under any serious logical scrutiny.
She sets the stage with a brief history of swimwear, covering only that worn by women, emphasizing the negative responses by those who were scandalized by the bikini when it was first invented. Right away, her argument is weakened the moment it begins. In the simple act of acknowledging the gradual change in swimwear, she also unwittingly acknowledges the fact that decency standards, in many cultures, are not necessarily constant. She also conveniently leaves out a number of important points; to name a few, contemporaneous men’s swimwear (men had to cover their chests on the beach until the 1930s); the origin of swimwear itself and the public’s response (which actually wasn’t universally grateful); and the current state of beach decency standards in the bikini’s native France.
In spite of this, such a selective approach to the history was necessary to lend any degree of credibility to her next point. As a matter of course, she had to make sure it was clear how people used to think in days of yore in order to show us how much “power” women possess once they don the fabled bikini. In an attempt to demonstrate this power, she cites a scientific study carried out at Princeton University. Brain scans of the men who were tested showed that, the more scantily a woman was dressed, the more likely they were to see that woman as an object rather than a human being. Rather than questioning this result to any extent, she jumps straight to the conclusion that not only must all men everywhere respond this way, but that such a response must be biologically instinctive – it’s just human nature. She never takes into account other probable factors, such as socialization or the culture in which the test subjects were raised. She ignores the narrowness of the experiment, not bothering to cross-reference with others involving responses to other stimuli, such as music or art. If you like Haydn symphonies and I like Beethoven symphonies, and neither of us care much for each other’s preference, our brains will “light up” differently from each other when we are exposed to either. Thus, the only people the Princeton experiment proves anything about is those who were tested. This is a much more subjective issue than Ms. Rey realizes.
“But wait, doesn’t the design of the bikini draw attention to a woman’s intimate/erogenous areas?” I can hear some of you thinking. Well, yes, it can, depending on your or your culture’s idea of what qualifies as such. If this objectification problem had anything to do with human nature, we would see a universal constant across all cultures and subcultures worldwide. Instead, we see theocracies in the Middle East where women are covered from head to toe, and we see primitive tribes in the hotter regions Africa and South America where women are covered from navel to hip bone, if anything. All other cultures fall somewhere in between these two standards, and almost all of them will insist that theirs is the one informed by common sense – so which culture uses the “correct” demarcations? For our purposes, though, let’s focus on ours, here in the US. Our current society is truly bizarre when it comes to modesty. It is among the most sexually charged in the Western world, yet it is also the one that harbors the most fear and stigma towards the body. This makes for a combination that isn’t exactly conducive to one’s mental health. Under this mentality, dress is morality and undress is immorality. Of course, such a generalization is misguided at best – some of the most crooked people in the world dress conservatively every day. It is under the precepts of this stigma that Mrs. Rey constructs her argument. Where this mentality comes from exactly is for another blog post entirely.
Then, there’s her third point, in which she appeals to concerns regarding fashion. Just in case making her argument historical and scientific doesn’t work, she attempts to make it “cool.” This is where she pitches her own line of swimwear, assuring the audience that now they finally have a way to cover up and still dutifully comply with the immutable dictates of fashion. It is as if she means to commoditize claiming a moral high ground as a fashion statement. She also critiques the wisdom of parents who buy bikinis for their daughters, which simultaneously serves as her only step in the right direction and yet another nail in the coffin. Having just cited human nature, she now acknowledges the importance of nurture, but of course, she never expounds on the relationship between the two.
Concluding her presentation, she makes a few brief comments concerning morality. Central to this point is her belief in what she calls “natural modesty,” which, somehow, despite being natural, “has been stripped away by our culture.” To this I would frankly advise that she make up her mind. Ideally, we should define human nature as those aspects of humanity that cannot be altered even by cultural forces. If a person’s physical modesty depends on his/her surrounding culture, then that’s not nature, that’s psychology.
Now, having said all that, let me make clear that I am not against her franchise; if that’s her dream and there’s a market for it, more power to her. But as a male in his early 20s, I can confidently tell you that Ms. Rey’s solution will not solve the objectification problem. Albert Einstein famously said that we can’t solve a problem using the same thinking that caused it, but that is exactly what she is doing. As I said before, she is thinking within the precepts of the current stigma: the stigma begets mystification, which begets sexualization, which begets objectification, which further reinforces the stigma. This is the true reason people were so scandalized by the bikini in the first place. All these appeals to “natural modesty,” dignity, and being made in God’s image are empty truisms. This objectification is an action by men and is a problem that must be fixed by men. It’s not physical modesty we need, it’s emotional maturity.