The title probably needs some clarification.
If your “youth group” is/was anything like the one at our church, then at least once a year the unsuspecting young adults were divvied up – girls in one room, boys in the other – and given “The Talk.” I know in some settings those talks could be weird, but on the whole the ones I saw did more good than harm. The boys’ talk would, among other things, include at least one mention, and possibly (too) many, of the “M” word +/- the “P” word. The girls’ talk (which I have never witnessed, but I am told) would, among other things, inevitably involve some discussion about the importance of dressing appropriately. The annual message was that what a woman wears has some very real effects on the young gentlemen in the room across the hall.
Well, it seems your youth group leader was right on. In a fascinating Q:ideas talk – The Evolution of the Swimsuit – designer and actress Jessica Rey traces the journey from knee-length-one-piecers through to the string bikini. The latter was the invention of French engineer, Louis Réard, who named the insubstantial garment after the island site of France’s nuclear testing – Bikini Atoll. Réard thought that the public response to the bikini (the most authentic of which, he famously stated, should be able to be pulled through a wedding ring) would be on the magnitude of an atomic bomb.
He was right on, too. When it debuted in the late 1940s, the bikini was so scandalous that no French model would wear one – Réard had to hire a stripper to show it off. In the United States it was initially viewed as “a suspect garment favoured by licentious Mediterranean types…” Modern Girl Magazine wrote: “It is hardly necessary to waste words on the so-called bikini because no girl with tact or decency would ever wear such a thing…”
Jessica Rey goes on to describe that it was the sexual revolution of the 1960s that really popularised the bikini in North America. Seen as another valid way for a woman to express her equality, individuality, freedom and control, the bikini was referred to by one New York Times reporter as “the millennial equivalent of the Power Suit.”
But just what power exactly does bikini-wearing give to a woman?
This is the question that Rey is interested in…and this is where the youth group leader’s talk gets confirmed. Several years ago a Princeton University study found that when male students were shown pictures of scantily-clad women, the part of the brain associated with tools and objects lit up. Some of the men showed zero brain activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain that lights up when one ponders another person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions. The researchers found this shocking – they almost never see this part of the brain shut down in this way. One Princeton professor said: “It’s as if they are reacting to these woman as if they are not fully human. It’s consistent with the idea that they are responding to these photographs as if they were responding to objects, not people.”
After discussing that study and another Jessica Rey concludes:
“So it seems that wearing a bikini does give a woman power – the power to shut down a man’s ability to see her as a person; rather as an object. This is surely not the kind of power that women were searching for – the power to be treated as an equal; to be seen as in control; to be taken seriously. It seems that the kind of power they were searching for is more attainable when they were dressing modestly…”
Her goal has been to revive that concept of modesty which, ironically, is not well accepted in the 21st-century. Modesty is seen as old-fashioned, ill-fashioned and oppressive, but she says it need not be: “Modesty isn’t about hiding ourselves; it’s about revealing our dignity.”
She has designed a range of women’s swimwear that aims to “dismiss the age-old motto that when it comes to swimsuits, less is more.” Having introduced her talk with the 1960 hit Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, the tag-line to her label is “Who says it has to be Itsy Bitsy?” Believing that you can be modest without sacrificing fashion, she concludes: “I believe that the woman was afraid to come out of the water because she had a natural sense of modestly about her that has been stripped away by today’s culture. And we need to bring it back.”
And perhaps try to recall some of the other advice your old youth group leader gave you…