Trending this week on Facebook and elsewhere has been a video of entrepreneur Jessica Rey as she advocates for modesty. Rey has started her own company and designs a line (of admittedly adorable) modest swim suits. When I saw her video posted on friends Facebook feed, I was excited to hear what this ambitious and intelligent woman had to say about our summer beachwear.
Her talk began with a promising approach. She discusses the history of the bathing suit, noting the scandal caused by the introduction of the bellybutton-bearing bikini in the middle of the 20th century. She then contrasts the seemingly modest swim suits of the 1950s with the earlier loose-fitting “bathing costume” and “bath machines,” a changing room on wheels, which were common during the turn of the century. According to Rey, women were rolled down to the water’s edge in these cart-like contraptions and then quickly jumped into the water, minimizing the time that prying eyes could witness them in their pajama-like swimming gear.
Rey concludes this historical part of her talk by noting that, “we have certainly come a long way since then.” So, evidently, she too finds the swimming apparel of the late 19th and early twentieth centuries to be unfitting for the 21st century, reflecting an over-the-top concern for the concealment of the female form. Unfortunately, Rey then turns her talk toward modern science and its ability to reveal the effect of swimwear on the male brain. To my dismay, she cites two studies (both at Princeton University: see one of them here ) which demonstrate the way in which men see women as people when they are properly clothed, but only as objects when they wear bikinis. Bikinis, argues Rey, give women power. But it is not the power of a sexual revolution. By bearing our skin, women only have “the power to shut down a man’s ability to see her as a person.” What is the solution to a man’s inability to treat women as human? Cover up.
This aspect of Rey’s talk truly disheartened me. Here is a successful and well-educated woman who still believes and advocates for the view that women are responsible for the thoughts and actions of men. Although there are multiple problems with this way of thinking, I want to point out just two. First, when we talk as if women are responsible for men’s actions toward them, it actually removes agency (along with responsibility) from men. If we are to treat men like fully-fledged adult individuals, then they should be responsible for their behavior. (For an interesting look at this, check out this post at Sociological Images. I was so encouraged by the respondent who said it is his responsibility “to not treat women as objects for my satisfaction, even if they dress and act like it.”)
Secondly, her talk is missing an important sociological insight: modesty (and what counts as modest appearance) is a constructed concept. To those women who were carted down to the waves in the 19th century, the modest swimwear of the 1950s which Rey imitates with her designs would seem outright scandalous. (It is curious that in the contemporary world, revealing your skin is considered immodest, but revealing your shape in a skin-tight suit is a modest option.) If it is true that men are more likely to see women as objects when they wear bikinis, it is because the social world has taught them to do it. We have made the exposed bellybutton a sex symbol much in the way that bare ankles were once sexually alluring. And, this means that we can (and regularly do) change the standards for what counts as sexual dress. More importantly, it also means that women and their clothing have not been “scientifically” proven to be responsible for the way in which men behave toward them due some biological and uncontrollable “natural” response to bellybuttons.
Rey concludes by saying that, “modesty is not about hiding ourselves, it is about revealing our dignity.” I directly disagree: I think modesty (in this case especially) has everything to do with hiding the female body (where was the history and critique of the men’s speedo in her talk?). However, I do think that women should feel free to wear what they want without worrying about the impression they make on men. Society can pressure women to reveal (even just through the absence of one-piece suits that don’t look like they belong in Grandma’s closet). And while I whole heartily disagree with Rey’s reasons for covering up, I do applaud her for providing women with swimwear alternatives and making the bikini optional.