A video has been making the rounds of the internet, particularly in Mormon spheres, of swimsuit designer Jessica Rey speaking about “The Evolution the Swimsuit.” This post is borrowed from Stephen, who originally blogged about it (tumblr’d about it?) here. Other responses to the video can be read here and here.
There are so many problems with Jessica Rey’s discussion.
1. Rey’s first argument is a pathetic (in the literal sense of the word meaning “appealing to emotion” as in the Greek “pathos”) quotation of a song from 1960, “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini.” She points out that the woman in the bikini is nervous and shy and afraid to come out from behind the locker. I’ll concede that perhaps when Western women, especially in America, first found themselves able (“able” meaning they didn’t face extreme rejection or ejection from society, legal repercussions or personal violation) to wear bikinis and other body-exposing clothing in public, some of them may have been afraid or anxious. But that’s not the whole picture. First, her approach to the concept of modesty and body exposure ignores the non-Western world entirely. But more importantly, Rey fails to discuss the reasons for their anxiety. She simply tells us that a woman is shy and afraid to come out with her stomach exposed but offers no proper explanation.
Fear of body exposure has been taught culturally for thousands of years. In the AD period, the early Christian church which had an exclusively male clergy taught that “the body is a temple of God” and verses like 1 Timothy 2:9, which specifically discusses modesty of women, interpreting such scriptures in such a way that they could effectively control the bodies of women. This is not incongruous with the early Christian fear of sexuality, especially regarding women, worshiping Mary’s virginity and obsessing over the purity and innocence of women. These male-determined views of women’s bodies carried through the millennia, and women have, for thousands of years, been taught to fear their bodies. They have been taught that they are the holy and chaste ones and that men are the carnal and wicked ones, and this dichotomy of teachings places men in a position to do as they will (it is only expected as they’re evil) and places women in a position of oppression. Western women were (and remain) conditioned by a Christian-saturated culture to feel anxious and guilty when their bodies are exposed. IT is an unhealthy psychological response to a structural conditioning, and there is no argument there for her.
That said, many people are uncomfortable wearing a bikini and I don’t mean to marginalize their personal experiences. I only mean to say that many people are not uncomfortable in a bikini, and that many who are are uncomfortable because they have been taught by a male-dominated religious culture that they ought to be.
2. She mentions the empowerment of women, claiming that the bikini is not, in fact, empowering to women and irrelevantly cites the psychological response of men in case studies, saying that the bikini causes men to objectify women. Her research may be accurate, I suppose, that men do often objectify women. There are HUGE problems with this argument, though. The first problem is that to suggest that this objectification of a women in a bikini is a natural response innate to being a male is simply wrong and is frankly offensive to me. The fetishization of women’s bodies, especially such arbitrary, nonsexual areas of the body as breasts, shoulders, legs and stomachs, is a construct related again to the early Christian church’s claims over women’s bodies.
I have discussed this loads of times in the past:
“1. The brain is the most erogenous part of the body, and, though we’ve always been taught otherwise, sexuality is a primarily psychological trait, not a physical one. The physical aspects of our sexuality, ie. vaginal lubrication, penile erection, orgasm, ejaculation, etc., are effected* almost entirely by our thoughts. Wet dreams, anybody? And I’ve known people who masturbate without touching themselves. That’s a bit tangential, though.
2. Structure heavily influences psychosexuality. Nearly everything we fetishize personally—vulvae, penises, breasts, arms, necks, lips, hair, legs, feet, etc.—is the result of structural fetishization. Historically, these fetishizations have been created by religion, adopted by government (government has nearly always been theocratic) and then enforced by the state’s ideological apparatuses (family, schools, the media, reinforced by churches). Our personal fetishes are reflections of the religious establishment’s fetishes.
3. The Church (in the conceptual sense—not the Mormon Church specifically, but all religion) determines what is sexual by declaring what is forbidden to be touched and what is to be hidden from sight. Breast fetishization is not cross-cultural. Most eastern religions (Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance) don’t forbid women to show their breasts, and, in fact, much of their art includes bare breasts. The Western Church fetishized breasts by forbidding them, fetishized penises—most notably in the Great Castration—though penises do admittedly have a sexual function that may be notable depending on your assumptions and opinions regarding sexuality. The Mormon Church fetishizes women’s shoulders by insisting that they be hidden and therefore declaring them sexual.
We are taught as we grow up in the Church that we are inherently attracted to and stimulated by certain body parts, and that the Church has consequently forbidden them (cause: a body part has an erotic appeal, effect: it is therefore forbidden by Church) when in fact the opposite is true (cause: a body part is forbidden by Church, effect: it develops an erotic appeal in our psyche).
Women’s bodies have been fetishized more brutally than men’s historically, as Papacy and Apostleship have always made efforts to retain power over women, and women now want to reclaim their bodies. Their bodies are currently the possession of church and state, and they want them back. This isn’t a lewd, immodest display. It is a fight against the idea that their bodies are intrinsically lewd and immodest.”
– Me talking about stuff.
The second problem with her argument and with any argument suggesting that women have power over men’s thoughts and actions by means of their attire is a perpetuation of rape culture. To say that a woman can herself give men bad thoughts and cause them to rape her is an unhealthy social paradigm even if it is true, which it is most assuredly not.
3. She never defines modesty or recognizes that modesty is a cultural construct rather than an inherent, Platonic principle. I sort of discussed that up in 2.
4. “LITTLE GIRLS IN SEXY UNDERWEAR”? This is horrible. I suppose Rey is speaking under the erroneous notion that dressing a little girl in clothing that reveals her stomach or shoulders or legs is on par with sexualizing her. But she is wrong. In fact, the sexualization occurs not in the dressing, but rather in viewing of such dress as sexual. When we see a little girl with her shirt off and see that as wrong and immodest, we are indeed the ones sexualizing her. A little girl’s body is not sexual, and to suggest that it is is misinformed and unhealthy.
5. “We were made beautiful in His image and likeness”. That’s not exactly true, though, is it? I mean, not exactly. I personally believe that women are created in the image of a Heavenly Mother who, because of the patriarchal structure of Christianity, has been hidden from us for a long, long time.
I do believe in a god, but I don’t think God wants men to control women and I don’t think he wants either women or men to fear their bodies. If you are personally uncomfortable with the exposure of your own body, cool. But please don’t act as though you are right and people who have different comfort levels or beliefs are wrong or wicked or “immodest”.
I’m so hungry right now. Raisin Bran time.
1) The study she cites was never published, was not peer reviewed, has a sample size too small (21 male Princeton students), and didn’t actually find what she says it found. The men in the study saw pictures of women from the neck down. THIS is why their brains saw the women as objects, not because they wore bikinis. And even then, the only men who saw them that way were the ones who scored high on sexism. So a tiny minority of an already tiny sample…not generalizable…not good science. Also, to chant the cry of everyone who has ever sat through any research course “correlation does not equal causation”.
2) This woman sells swimsuits for a living, and we shouldn’t forget that no matter how much we want to rally behind a fellow one-piece suit enthusiast. She has a monetary reason to steer people toward the product she sells. This is video is a sales pitch, dressed up a little, but a sales pitch all the same. Hey, if you like her product and you want to share it, I’m all over that. I like cute swimsuits, especially if they provide good coverage and comfort. But the message is biased because she is selling something.
3. Using “modesty” to judge dignity and self-worth? Oh no. I do not think so. I am WORTH the exact same no matter how I adorn myself. So are my daughters. So is my son. So are you. If she hadn’t lost me already with bad science and the obvious sales pitch, this is the point where I became perturbed a little.————-“Yes, men who scored high on sexism were more likely to view headless women in bikinis as objects. But, ladies, if we based our behavior on how sexist men might act — we still wouldn’t be voting or owning property or running corporations. So there’s that. If someone sees you as an object because of what you wear or do, be it a hoodie or a swimsuit, that’s not your fault.”