The Power Suit

The modern American woman is at a pinnacle of equality and freedom of expression more so than ever before.  Claiming ownership of intellectual and physical expression, women have come a long way in the past century from housewife subordinate to capable and genitive goddess.  Surely, creating a power base upon which this ladder to women’s suffrage was built, necessitates climbing with tact and intelligence. The evolution of swimwear has always been linked with women’s liberation.

Though it might be hard to imagine any itsier bitsier swimwear than what is worn today, the modern bikini is surprisingly similar to the bathing suits worn in Greece as far back as 300 B.C.  The communal bathhouse was a central gathering place for conversation and gossip over a luxurious hot or cold bath.  After the fall of the Roman Empire, Western society viewed bathing as being strictly therapeutic, rather than recreational.

Greece Swimwear, Greece, Bathing Suit

This view of bathing as a private activity conjured more modest beach attire.  Early swimsuits were gowns with weighted hems to prevent the wool from floating up revealing any leg.  Women would dress in bathing houses which were then wheeled out into the water so that the women would never be seen in their raunchy swim attire on the beach.

The bikini, invented in 1946 by Paris designer Louis Reard, was suspect to strike the world like a bomb; hence it recieved its nuclear nickname after the prevalent South Pacific test bombing site Bikini Atoll.  The public was shocked and repulsed by this “suspect garment favored by licentious Mediterranean types”.  A 1957 issue of Modern Girl claimed: “It is hardly necessary to waste words over the so-called bikini since it is inconceivable that any girl with tact and decency would ever wear such a thing.”  In fact, Reard had to hire a stripper, Micheline Bernardini to debut his creation because no reputable model would dare wear it.

Bikini debut - It fits into a matchbox.

Bikini debut – It fits into a matchbox!

Facing much resistance from the media and social normality, the bikini was banned from beauty contests and films and those who donned them were arrested for indecent exposure.  Not fifteen years passed before people began to change their attitudes about the bikini as the sexual revolution of the 60’s encouraged conversation about decency and the effects of showing skin on women’s rights.  But how did if effect the men?

Photo by Michael Irwin/Rex Features

Photo by Michael Irwin/Rex Features

A study conducted by Princeton University used brain scans to measure activity in the pre-frontal cortex when men were shown images of women in bikinis.  The pre-frontal cortex is the region of the human brain responsible for thoughts, feelings and intentions.  When men saw pictures of women wearing bikinis, the brain scans showed without fail little activity in the pre-frontal cortex.  In a separate Princeton study, men tended to use first-person action verbs to refer to women in bikinis and third-person action verbs when describing a woman in modest clothing.  This suggests that in wearing the bikini, women do hold some form of power – the power to shut off man’s capability to see them as a person, rather than as an object.  Weather or not this is the kind of power women fighting for equality should desire, the bikini is certainly here to stay.

Since the growing popularity of the bikini, there has been continued controversy spurring much needed dialogue about the effects of this “thoughtless act” (Esther Williams).  The bikini exposes the young girl to the significance of her figure as a tool of womanly power.  Explicitly demonstrating stick-thin models as an image of perfection is harmful on a developing self-image, removing any acceptance of individual variation.   When asked who shouldn’t wear a bikini, American fashion designer Norma Kamali respnded “anyone with a tummy”.  The bikini is less supportive for curvy women and has been a means for promoting the provocative.

From the beginnings of the bikini and the splash it has made in modern society, modesty and women’s movement have been certainly intertwined.  As a topic of discussion today, it’s important for both women and men to consider the effects of this power suit.  All in all, is less more?

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