What I’m Wearing to the Pool and What it Means, by Sara Frykenberg

Sara FrykenbergRecently 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,[1] 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 found this image on a 'jokes' page, making fun of blond women.  This image objectifies and demeans, yet, patriarchal culture would have us believe it is because these women are actually shameful.

I found this image on a ‘jokes’ page, making fun of blond women. The picture and corresponding jokes objectify and demean, and yet, patriarchal culture would have us believe it is because these women’s bodies are what is shameful.

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.

Missy Franklin wins the 200m Backstroke at the 2012 Olympics.  Sourced from: http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/london-olympics-2012-evolution-olympic-swimsuits-gallery-1.1130201?pmSlide=16

Missy Franklin wins the 200m Backstroke at the 2012 Olympics. Sourced from: NY Daily News

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 weekIt 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.

My suit! (But I didn't buy it-- I don't need another bathing suit)

My suit! (But I didn’t buy it– I don’t need another bathing suit)

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.

Sourced from: http://jezebel.com/the-plus-size-supply-and-demand-problem-fatkini-sell-509525472

The Fatkini: Sourced from: Jezebel

[1] 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.

Categories: Body, Embodiment, Feminism, Gender and Power, power, Power relations, Rape Culture, shopping, Women's Rights

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

20 replies

  1. Great post. Bikinis have been popular in Greece since the 1980s, no one except really old women wear 1 pieces. I personally have found bikinis comfortable and body affirming for myself, not for the male gaze. (Thongs are another question.) When I was in my 40s and 50s I was surprised that “women my age” from the US were “covering up” in 1 pieces.

    I should add that as a very tall woman, I have never been able to find a 1 piece that was long enough in the torso to fit. Now I am glad to have my tankini from Marks and Spenser, with “rushing” (gathers) on the top.

    On the beaches of Lesbos you will see women of all ages and sizes in bikinis, many of the foreign women topless. Just the other day, I saw a very obese young Greek woman enter the sea in a very tiny bikini. Her skin was brown, her hair long and black, and the triangles she was wearing exposed almost all of her body. I thought to myself “how pretty she looks!” I was glad she was not ashamed of her body, because she was beautiful to my eye.

    Thanks for raising the issue for all of us to think about.


    • Thank you for your reply Carol. I love the image you paint here of the Women of Lesbos. I saw women like the woman you describe when I was traveling in Italy. I was so young at the time, and I think I judged them as my initial response. But I also know, part of me wondered at them, thinking it was great they were so comfortable and wondering how that could be me.
      A recent conversation with a friend actually taught me that the more I realize that I don’t have to choose what I think other women and men supposedly want from me on the beach, the more I was able to celebrate other women’s empowerment and my own.


  2. Very interesting post with lots to think about. Thanks!

    How about we go back to Victorian “bathing suits” for men and women? Lots of coverup. You sure can’t get a tan in one. Even though I live five blocks from the ocean in SoCal, I don’t like to get wet, so I don’t own a swimsuit of any kind. When I was in graduate school in southern Illinois, though, I owned a black bikini in which I lay in the field behind my student housing to get a tan. That was for me. Not for men.


    • I love the image of a young you in the field enjoying the sun! That is fantastic! :)
      … and as far as Victorian bathing suits…. well, after years of competitive swimming which left my skin open to sun damage, that might not be a bad idea for me! ;) (just teasing!)


  3. As a self-identified dyke, I have often had a difficult time finding the bathing suit that I am most comfortable in. I appreciate your comment about wanting to swim naked – for me, the desire is to swim topless with a pair of short or long trunks. Instead, I find myself sporting a workout suit and wearing shorts over it, and wrestling with the same question as to whether or not I wear a two-piece version of the fitness top. I never want to b/c in both the full piece and the two piece, I find that my otherwise masculine frame ends up looking very feminine with a lot of chest emphasis on top. Even though I spend a lot of my time wondering how women will think I look in my suit, I end up disappointed that in order to wear a swimsuit (and actually go for a swim, instead of keeping my tank top or t-shirt on), I read more feminine and enter a world of male scrutiny that many of my street clothes tend to ward off. I don’t know how to explain this, except that by reading more feminine (and it’s not even gender neutral as bathing suits have a distinctly feminine feel), I suddenly get launched into the world of ‘ugly/awkward girl’ in the eyes of heterosexual men who, by my wearing a swimsuit at all, have suddenly been given back permission to look. All the sudden I am subject to comment again, and to my own feelings of discomfort (I’m not sure who’s more engaged in this permission – the occasional dude that gives me the wtf look, or me feeling as though I’ve conceded to something by requisite covering of my tits). I often wish that there was some store online I could go to (I imagine it would be named ‘rad dyke swimwear’ or something) for better options.


    • Dear Robin Melody,
      I really, really appreciate what you have to say here. Your response reminded me of so many conversations that I have had with my twin sister, who also identifies as a dyke.
      I agree, many suits read entirely feminine, accept those trunks that you don’t wear a top with. I really appreciate the way in which you highlight the heteronormativity implicit in swimwear, and how this feels. You state it so well, and it has given me a lot to think about.

      I recently read an article (I can’t remember from where) about a woman walking openly in the streets with no top on, and it being legal. I thought it was inspiring and hopeful. … I wish I could remember the source to share this with you…. actually, I wish it was reality in more than whatever place I was reading about.
      Every once in a while my sister has to borrow a suit from me (which tend to be very feminine) and I know its just not her, and she definitely feels that too.
      If you ever find a ‘rad dyke swimwear’ store, please let me know so I can pass the information along.

      Thank you so much for your reply.


  4. Isn’t there a line by some famous guy (hint: Starts with an “S”) to the effect that “the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves”? I’ve lost weight lately, and feel pretty good about how I look. I haven’t always felt that good, and often hid behind cover ups. Somewhere along the line I figured out that MY view of MYself was the issue. But then, I am not in a relationship. For those in a relationship of any kind, I suspect the key is to find someone who simply loves you, no matter what you are, or are not, wearing. I have one lady friend who is 72, and she says one of her great blessings in life is that her husband still sees her as beautiful. [sigh]


    • Hi MaryAnn,
      I do think our view of ourselves it a factor here. However, I also believe that our view of ourselves is often strongly affected by patriarchal standards of beauty and acceptability in particular. Internalized oppression sucks. The only way I have learned to battle it is by naming an oppression where it exists, and then actively and intentionally working to counter the message of dominating culture.


  5. I long for the day when women can wear whatever they want (or nothing, for that matter, if they so choose) and it won’t be up to men to dictate how we dress. I feel irked every time I see a man with a big pot belly parading around with no shirt, but it’s mostly because, if his wife did that, he and the rest of the world would be extremely upset. :o(


    • I also long for the day that we can not wear or wear what we want without the patriarchal gaze, particularly on the beach or at the pool. I love the water and feel so lovely in it, because of how my body can move. Thank you for your reply!


  6. I have wistfully wondered about Victorian swimsuits and seriously investigated burqinis because I burn so easily. (I’ll have to look into that long-sleeved suit!)

    Your anecdote about body-policing of women by men at the pool is very telling. (Depressing, but telling.)


  7. I’ve never been much interested in bathing suits of any kind, and just prefer to walk along the beach in rolled up pants and t-shirt. Very comfortable. And I love the out of the way places where I can walk with a woman, and there are no men out at all, or if they are they are far far away. Boating, love it, love coasting along the ocean to coves and inlets, and enjoying beaches far and near. Most of these debates seem silly to me; I’m not really interested in the obsessions of most women, but I do feel that the best beach is one women own!


    • Hi Turtle Woman,
      I grew up with stories (stories my father told me) about separate swimming pools for men and women on some cruise ships where one need not wear a swimsuit. I remember longing for those pools, so I appreciate the beach you suggest here.
      I once went to an all women’s bathhouse to help celebrate a friend’s upcoming marriage. This was also a really great space. I was not comfortable enough to be naked myself at the time, but many women were, including my friend’s mother. I think this is a beautiful thing.

      I don’t agree with all of your all of your positions in these two replies, but I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to me to allow myself a place to be with just women or one that really allows me to celebrate myself as a woman. I long for more of this space.

      Thank you for your posts Turtle Woman.


  8. As I’ve said often, women need large tracts of land, and large areas where no men are allowed at all. We need land and more land, and whole giant outdoor places where we don’t have to see men or interact with them at all. Why bother? They are nothing but irritants for women who love nature. And the most beautiful women are the ones unowned by the colonizers, unowned and free.


  9. Women need to take up as much space as is possible, and beaches, bathhouses are great places for women only space. I loved the public baths of countries, and how all the women would gather and talk. I don’t want to have my body or sense of self anywhere near rapists porn addicts and oppressors, and women need countries, we need beaches, we need whole city blocks that we own and control, and men are not allowed anywhere near them. There needs to be severe punishment for men who violate any of women’s precious private spaces.
    I am adament that the more male free space women have, the more male free time, the better the world of women will be.

    I am lucky to have friends who own land that men are never allowed on, it is powerful, it is safe, it is filled with beauty. And no, your husband or boyfriend is not someone I care to meet or converse with on a beautiful beach–and all this anxiety over clothing which is the curse of the gender hierarchy in which women have to wear all this silly clothing to begin with creates and continues anxiety because, well men gaze, men rape, and men ruin everything they come in contact with in nature. They are the destruction of the earth, and as a woman who want grand amounts of freedom, grand stretches of beach, and beautiful sailing on the seas, all I can dream of is more women only space.


  10. Thanks for this essay and the thoughts it provokes. As a Muslim woman I battle with notions of modesty which I believe cannot be adjudicated because they have to reflect an interior state of comfort.. In my younger days, and before I was Muslim I would wear the bikini and think nothing of it Then I went to the other extreme and for about 30 years only ever swam in tee shirt and gym pants. One day I arrived at the place where I could comfortably swim in a swimming suit but still cannot travel through the streets in one.

    by way of demonstration: in my recent vacation in Bali, we had to find a hotel located on the beach, so that I could wrap a long towel around my waist and walk back to my room. If I am staying at a hotel where I must walk a block or two to get to and from the beach it doesn’t work out for my sense of self-modesty. I’m not comfortable walking that distance in only a towel or dripping, clinging sarong.

    I also own a burqini, (which is actually that long sleeved bathing suit plus legs and a sort of mock mini-skirt.) I bought one because I spent Christmas holiday once when I was living in Indonesia at a beach house with a number of families including students and others whom I had mentored (male and female). I just COULDN’T take off my clothes for them but the tee shirt and pants is not really ideal for swimming. The burqini is made out of swimming suit fabric.. like a wet suit.

    It has however taking all these transitions for me to know what is comfortable for me and under what circumstances. I think that is what I like best about your essay, the grappling with finding the inner-location irrespective of the body-politics that women have to face (when ever they do not have the access to the free and open spaces Turtlewoman describes so well..!)


  11. I often wear a two-piece bathing suit, but with a “boy short” type of bottoms, rather than bikini-ish bottoms. After having my third baby, I feel more self-conscious in a two-piece now, like my stomach is “too flabby” or sticks out too much when I sit down. I don’t like this feeling, because historically I’ve felt good about how I look, in bathing suits and otherwise. Recently, I bought a new bathing suit–it is a one piece purple and black “swim dress.” I am of two minds about it—one it feels “old ladyish” and I feel like I *should* just flaunt the two-piece like usual. Why be self-conscious and covered up?! And, two, I rock this swim dress and look totally cute in it! ;-D Loved your point though that what your bathing suit looks like should have nothing to do with men. And, also that why are issues of harassment, rape, etc. classed as “women’s issues.” I can’t STAND that. Drives me nuts.

    Oh, and from a practical perspective though, it is a heck of a lot harder to pee when wearing the one piece! ;-D


  12. I have a friend who is a huge Power Rangers fan, and according to him in Japan, where the Power Rangers were originally filmed, the Yellow Power Ranger was male! But because they all used full face masks, it was easy to export the fight scenes to other countries, and then film local stars speaking the native language for the Power Rangers out of costume.

    Also, because I was curious I clicked through on the photo of the blondes which you link to above. After some examination it hit me: it’s easy to denigrate women… when you stack the deck in your favor. Look closely at the “reversed” numbers — they’ve all been photoshopped.


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