Sorting by

Skip to main content

Burkinis and Bikinis

By September 12, 2016 2 Comments

By Rebecca Koerselman

Many French mayors have attempted to ban the wearing of Burkinis on French beaches this summer. Historically, women routinely got into trouble for wearing too little and exposing ankles, throats, bosoms, midsections, or too much shoulder. But this time, women are wearing too much. burkinis

In reality, it isn’t as much about modesty in swimwear at the beach as it is about being visibly identified as a Muslim woman. But why is it that men’s bodies, even Muslim men’s bodies, do not receive the same level of scrutiny? Why is it women’s bodies and women’s clothing that becomes the focus of discomfort with an entire group of people?

Battles over what women wear is not new for most of us in the 21st century. In high school, I unwittingly became part of a fight over the wearing of spaghetti strap tank tops. As I recall, the school handbook rejected “picnic wear” as inappropriate to wear to school and there was some debate about what exactly picnic wear looked like, as various teachers and administrators interpreted this rule in various ways. A number of high school girls decided to test the policy by all wearing spaghetti strap tank tops on the same day, assuming they couldn’t ALL receive detentions. I happened to be wearing a sleeveless collared shirt that day (not anything close to a spaghetti strap tank top, even for those without a fashion IQ) and received a detention. blank_cami_spaghetti_strap_tank_top_blacksleeveless-collared-shirtThe handbook language was eventually changed, but this highlighted the vacuous nature of ‘modesty’ in dress. I have long arms and legs, so if I performed the fingertip test to measure the length of my shorts, my shorts were often shorter than my fingertips, but longer than most other girls’ shorts. What about tightness of clothing? What if an item covers neck to ankle but is see through? And the arbitrary list of ‘modesty’ goes on…

A tumblr account called Stop the Cat Call ( documents images of what women were wearing when they received lewd and inappropriate comments by men. One of the most commonly whispered questions surrounding sexual harassment is “yes, but what was she wearing?” The tumblr account, not surprisingly, shows women in ‘normal’ dress, some in scrubs, some in lab coats with goggles and head coverings that testify to the suggestive comments received by men. The point is that what women wear seems to have no bearing on their bodies as targets for sexually harassing comments. And women are raised to understand this is normal, and some even to think this is what it means to be valued and wanted.

During the Cold War, many experts connected fears of out of control sexuality with the insecurities of the Cold War era. According to historian Elaine Tyler May, author of Homeward Bound: American Families in the Postwar Era, times of crisis and social change are typically met with anxiety, and many Americans found the new atomic age unsettling and reacted with concerns about the impending doom of families in America. For May, the postwar era became obsessed with non-marital sexuality and finding ways to regulate it. May wrote,
During these years a slang term for a sexy woman outside the home was a bombshell. (Other terms connoting the devastating power of female sexuality included a knockout and a “dynamite” woman.) The term bombshell first emerged during the 2310s, with the increasing recognition of female sexuality as powerful and explosive. During World War II, pilots named their bombers after their sweethearts and decorated their planes with erotic portraits. The wartime emergency, calling for fashion adaptations that would conserve fabric, gave rise to the twopiece bathing suit that also appeared dangerous. The Wall Street Journal noted ominously that “the saving has been effected in the region of the midriff…. The difficulties and dangers of the situation are obvious.”” In the postwar era, female sexuality continued to represent a destructive and disruptive force. A photograph of Hollywood sex symbol Rita Hayworth was actually attached to the hydrogen bomb dropped on the Bikini Islands. The island itself provided the name for the abbreviated swimsuit the female “bombshells” would wear. The designer of the revealing suit chose the name “bikini” four days after the bomb was dropped to suggest the swimwear’s explosive potential.”

Domestic containment was the only way for nuclear families to survive in an atomic age. Interesting to see how the dropping of an atomic weapon led to the name of similarly dangerous and powerful….swimsuit for women.

Once again, back to a focus on women’s bodies and what they wear as representative of danger, of disorder, and of difference.

Does “fixing” women’s bodies and the appearance of women ever really “fix” the problem? If not, why are we still trying to fix a deep and complex social problem by punishing women’s bodies?


Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.


Leave a Reply