The feminist discourse has mostly focused around body positivity when it comes to the summer beach body, but I wish to shift the focus on to the tiny garment itself. Wearing the bikini. Does the raunchy piece of clothing cater to the male gaze by posting women as objects, or does it give multifaceted agency to women to control their own bodies?
Evidence of the bikini can be traced back to as early as 1400 BC on Greek urns, and by the 14th century, the garment was worn by women athletes for practice. Consequently, with society turning more conservative, women turned to fuller clothing, in some instances, by even sewing weights in the hems to ensure their costumes would not ride up to show their legs on the beach. Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman in 1907 sought to challenge the cumbersome women’s swimming attire – pantaloons – and wore the first body-fitting costume; she was thereby arrested, but became an inspiration for women.
Historically, two-pieces came about as a result of rationing ordered during the Second World War, where manufacturers reduced the amount of fabric. In 1946, US conducted nuclear tests in the Bikini Atoll. Four days later, a French engineer Louis Reard designed the bikini, which he claimed would be an explosion as big as the one at Bikini Atoll. However, after the first Miss World pageant, bikinis were banned in most of Europe, and the Vatican declared them sinful. On the other hand, by late 1960s, several actresses had donned the bathing suit and had even made it to the covers of magazines.
Closer home, Sharmila Tagore became the first Indian actress to wear a bikini in An Evening in Paris (1967), which shocked the conservative Indian audience. However, many actresses followed suit, and Zeenat Aman was adjudged one of the hottest actresses of all time – showing how the definition of femininity in India, which was associated with modesty, changed with the advent of the bikini.
When one looks at the history of the bikini it is evident that it had an ancient presence, but as women’s bodies became sites of control, any clothing which was considered indecent was banned. It was only with the rationing of fabric that the mid-riff even made a comeback, following which, the emergence of the modern bikini got numerous fans – among men as well. While the conservatives resisted the swimsuit, many bold women felt the bikini swimsuit was an apparatus to liberate their bodies.
Debates around the bikini largely echo how women have perceived self-expression and choice related to the female body. While some might claim that by wearing a bikini, they are sexualising themselves voluntarily and on their own terms – which in itself is feminist, others argued that if in that expression one is catering to the patriarchal norms of body and objectification, they end up reinforcing those norms.
Moreover, for most females, this sexualisation is compulsive and, for almost all, involuntary when it is perpetuated by males. One might pride themselves for not being ashamed of their body in times where body shaming is rampant, but that pride is often vested in a compulsion to adhere to norms which are burdening the larger female population, and thus is more reactionary than constructive.
However, the nude female body has been a symbol of protest against the patriarchal structure throughout history. A study, now retracted, claimed female doctors who posted pictures in bikinis were seen as unprofessional, which triggered the #MedBikini photos where female doctors posted their pictures in bikinis as protest. The #freethenipple, slut walk, and ‘no bra day’ are some other recent constructive movements across the world which aim to demystify and desexualise the female body and liberate choice for females.
Today, bikinis are dominantly worn by cis-females in what some of them perceive as an act of celebration of their bodies, as a rebellion against the shaming that they have had to face for not being conventionally attractive enough, but at the same time, by also catering to the expected gender affiliations in this act. How does one then relate bikini to identity? Is the bathing suit also reinforcing gender binaries as it excludes some sexual minorities? Cut to Burkinis, which caused an uproar in France where they were banned post the ISIS attacks but the feminist debates regarding the burkini have now centred again around choice. While advocates claimed it would give mobility to women (“No one has a problem with a woman wearing a veil if she’s doing their housecleaning or washing the company toilets. But the second she leaves her ‘place,’ then it becomes a scandal.”), critics claimed it robbed women of their agency and conformed to the conservative/modest culture of the community. Muslim women’s voices, meanwhile, were largely absent from the debate.
The whole question of instinctively reacting to women’s clothing is in itself, then, a statement. We still continue to treat women’s clothing and choice as sites of debate, rather than respecting the choice women have made. So essentially, the bikini or women’s clothing in itself is not political, but the fact that a woman wears one makes it political/problematic/freeing. So the question of wearing or not wearing a bikini, or it being problematic or liberating depends on the informed choice and freedom of the woman choosing to wear it. The choice in itself should be an accomplishment, but that the bikini is a site of contestation at all, is political.
Saumya is a postgraduate in Political Science from Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her interest areas include gender studies, social media and politics, populism, and civic engagement. She can be found on Twitter and LinkedIn.
Featured Image Source: Seventeen