Recently a FAR colleague sent us writers an article entitled, “Toward a New Understanding of Modesty,” and asked if any of us would like to comment on it. I dove at the chance, pun intended. Not only did the article address the politics of swimwear (a kind of clothing I spent nearly a third of my life wearing everyday, swimming competitively for eight years), it also discussed the swimsuit designs of Jessica Rey – a former Power Ranger, the white-suited one to be specific.
The article’s author, Katelyn Beaty, explains that Rey believes, “that the now-ubiquitous bikini hurts women” because it encourages men to see women as objects to be used. Beaty states, “Rey has a mission: to get as many women as possible in one-piece swimsuits.” This mission immediately perked my attention. As a Power Ranger, Alyssa (Rey) is all too familiar with the utility of a shining, stretchy body suit. Armored head to toe in white, pink and gold lycra and spandex, sporting a skirt over her leggings, Alyssa defeats many monsters in the Power Ranger universe.
But fantasy aside, the utilitarian nature of swimwear is often overlooked in deference to “sexiness” and fashion. Bikinis are featured in most fashion magazines as the standard for bathing beauty, as is the ‘ability’ (or supposed ‘right kind of body’) to wear a bikini, aka the elusive “bikini body.”
Well, I for one have never felt totally comfortable in a bikini, even when I was an extremely fit athlete. I experience(d) a great deal of pressure to feel comfortable in one, but I’ve not been able to get my brain and body around what often feels like less coverage than a bra and panties. I have wanted to. I have pretended to, but when push comes to shove, a bikini also often feels like a standard that I cannot possibly meet. I was actually very excited that Rey would encourage the use of one-piece bathing suits and the design of attractive one-pieces. However, examining my own reaction to the article, I found my initial excitement was also uncritical. Sure, I want more one-piece suit options; but what kind of suit do you want? Does women’s objectification really have to do with what kind of bathing suit we wear at all?
I have worn, practiced and competed in nearly every kind of one piece available on the market. I wore bright suits, plain suits, tummy-taming suits and sometimes, two bathing suits at a time (chlorine does a number on swimsuits, so to save money you double up and fold down one set of straps to avoid suit burn on your neck). I have even worn a two-piece training suit, but tried to hide my non-existent “gut” every time I did. I particularly disdained putting on the knee length competition suits that you see in the Olympics, though I loved how they made me feel in the water.
In this diversity of swimsuit experiences, there was often one unifying story behind many of the suits I wore: I wanted to feel sexy or attractive. As a competitor, I also wanted to feel powerful. Yet, my assessment of how a suit performed and of my own power was all too often shadowed by my judgement of how I thought other people rated my appearance in a particular suit based on patriarchal standards of beauty.
The relationship of patriarchal misogyny to my self-judgement was highlighted during my last year swimming on my college team. Under a barrage of sexual harassment from the men’s team in our co-ed training pool, I found myself ashamed to walk on the pool deck. It didn’t matter what kind of suit I or other women on the team were wearing, or that we trained 20+ hours a week. It didn’t matter if women on the team were actually wearing swimsuits or not. Male teammates policed women who were eating doughnuts bought for the team by a parent, calling “a moment on the lips, ladies.” Body criticisms erupted in verbal confrontations in and out of the water. This harassment had nothing to do with what women were wearing. The actions of these male teammates had everything to do with power and controlling the women around them, physically and emotionally.
Beaty concludes her article with a critique of Rey’s mission by evangelical blogger, Rachel Held Evans. Evans writes:
While popular culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to get men to look at them, the modesty culture tends to disempower women by telling them they must dress to keep men from looking at them… In both cases, the impetus is placed on the woman to accommodate her clothing or her body to the (varied and culturally relative) expectations of men (Evans in Beaty).
I love what Evans says here because it is so true to me. Too often our dialogue related to clothing is about that clothing’s relationship to a man’s actions. I for one am sick of it. I am sick of the rape culture that says sexual violence and misogyny are “women’s issues.” Why should my swimwear be about a man at all? If I am honest with myself: I would swim naked given the privilege of privacy and respect. Given the reality of my cultural context and personal choice, I would rather wear a one-piece… and sometimes, I want to wear a two-piece as well. Any suit I wear needs to allow me the range of motion to flip-turn and swim the Butterfly and all the other strokes when I am in a pool. I would also prefer it not fall off of my body in the waves of the ocean.
A week before I read this article, I happened to be in a surfing store and found what I thought was an ideal bathing suit! It was a one-piece with long arms, presumably to keep surfers warm in cold Pacific waters. I was in love. I hate sunburns and love to swim. The suit was perfect. Plus, it was cute, very cute and very unlike the one-piece suits I trained in as a competitive swimmer. It was a great suit for me.
If women enjoy using Rey’s swimsuits then I say, fantastic. Enjoy the sun and the water! If they feel empowered by having more coverage, then perhaps they will continue to reclaim their power to determine what they wear. Like in cosplay, honoring one’s body in our clothing is a matter of choice, utility, and power. Whether you wear a one-piece, a bikini, a tankini or the newly launched “fatkini,” a two-piece swimsuit line designed to flatter a plus size woman’s body, I hope you are proudly wearing it for you.
 Interestingly enough, while this skirt does seem to mark Alyssa’s gender when transformed into a Power Ranger in the series Power Rangers: Wild Force Rangers, her female companion Taylor, the Yellow Wild Force Ranger, does not wear a skirt. This repeats a trend set in the 1993 series, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, in which the Pink Ranger wears a skirt and the Yellow Ranger does not. Again, both Pink and Yellow rangers are depicted as heterosexual females.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.