When we stopped over in a hotel in Strasbourg on our way down to Italy, my son was looking forward to taking a dip in the hotel pool. We were deeply disappointed to find out that the hotel rules did not allow boxer-short-type swimming trunks, the reason being that such trunks “disturbed other clients.” “Discriminatie” (discrimination) was my son’s immediate response. My reaction was more philosophical – indoctrinated as I am by the thoughts of Plato – rules are rules and must be observed, however unjust. The hotel did sell the correct type of swimming suit and the employee at the poolside was kind enough to go all the way back to the reception to get my son a pair. I realised that at the check-in, the receptionist had asked us if we had trunks but did not ask what sort. It reminds me of the story of the dehydrated wanderer in the desert, desperately searching for water, meeting only nomads selling ties. He eventually arrives at a hotel complex situated in a beautiful oasis, only to find out that admission to the hotel requires that one wears a tie.
The widespread hysterical reactions over Islamic swimming costumes or “burkinis” (it sounds more like an exotic cocktail), is only the latest controversy surrounding women’s swimwear. Before even starting, the mere fact that there is such a heated debate about this in the first place, already poses the problem of discrimination – why do we have arguments about women’s clothes and none concerning menswear?
Controversial women’s swimwear is nothing new. From bathing gowns resembling tent canvases, with the women who wore them enclosed in a “bathing machine,” to g-strings losing their way in the sunshine, ladies swimwear has never be short of charm, arrogance or controversy.
Cometh The Bi Kini
Bikinis were illegal in 1900, but seem to have been quite a hit in Roman times, as depicted by the beautifully preserved mosaics discovered in 1950 at the Villa del Casale in Piazza Armerina, Sicily. The modern-day version of the bikini was designed by Louis Réard, who named the outfit after the Bikini Atoll, where nuclear testing was being carried out at the time. Réard’s inspiration came after he had seen women in Saint-Tropez roll up the edges of their swimsuits in order to get a better suntan. In 1946, the bikini made its first official entry into our lives at a Paris poolside fashion show. It was so outrageous that even the models refused to wear the outfit, and a 19-year-old dancer from Les Folies Bergères had to be hired.
The bikini shocked the world for one simple reason – women were revealing their navels to the world. For Kevin Jones, a curator and fashion historian at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, nothing could be worse than the site of a woman’s navel in public,
I can’t think of any situation in the thousand years before the ’60s when it was acceptable to show the navel…We’re talking shocking clothing.
If I’m not mistaken, men also have a navel and, in any case, what did the Romans ever do for us, to be so hastily forgotten?
The bikini got accepted in the 60’s – spurred on by Brigitte Bardot in the film, “And God Created Woman,” as well as Ursula Andress, enticingly emerging from the sea in the James Bond film “Dr. No,” ready to eat anybody who opposes her and inundate the American coastline with arrogant, but liberated feminism. Little did they know, that a much worse shocker was on the way – when bi- became mono-.
The Mono Kini: Exposing a Woman’s Heart
The advent of Lycra changed everything. Whereas earlier bikinis were made of cotton or jersey, Lycra was a material that didn’t sag and was able to conceal and reveal. The first Lycra bikini to be made was, in fact, a monokini – designed by Rudi Gernreich, in 1964 – consisting of a close-fitting bottom and two thin straps passing around the neck. Well, at least the navel was covered, and Gernreich’s controversial design did have a universal purpose – to reduce the stigma of a naked body, and “cure our society of its sex hang up.”
To me, the only respect you can give to a woman is to make her a human being. A totally emancipated woman who is totally free. – Rudi Gernreich
There followed a world-wide reaction to Gernreich’s affront to perceived morality. The Soviet Union and the Catholic Church described the monokini as a decay of capitalism and negation of moral sense, respectively. Even in liberal France, voices were being heard in favour of prosecuting all women caught wearing such an outfit, and avant-garde film maker, Jean-Luc Goddard, had a scene featuring a monokini censored in his film, “A Married Woman.” Worse was still to come.
Air On A G-String
The G-string, or thong, is the smallest piece of swimwear known to man. Despite its sheer arrogance and provocation, it comes closest to moral harmony than any other swimwear, for the simple reason that men can wear one too. This is for anybody seeking minimal tan lines, who feels like expressing himself, or is keen to enjoy attention. There’s no room for argument, discrimination, or anything else for that matter – apart from sheer provocation and a sense of being “back to nature.”
The problem we face lies with our own interpretation of what we see, and our perception of the moral integrity of who we see. There is nothing morally wrong with wearing a G-string on a beach and those who do are probably trying to reflect the true nature of the beauty of human nature, seen at its most basic level. Desmond Morris did famously refer to “the naked ape,” highlighting our animal behaviour. For a few minutes at least, on a sunny beach, some of us can actually be this naked ape, seeking perfection.
In this state one enriches everything out of one’s own fullness: whatever one sees, whatever wills is seen swelled, taut, strong, overloaded with strength. A man in this state transforms things until they mirror his power—until they are reflections of his perfection. This having to transform into perfection is—art. – Friedrich Nietzsche
Of course, interpretation can be bigoted and skewed – reflecting a darker side to human nature, and affecting men in particular, but not exclusively. Former Italian president, Silvio Berlusconi, apart from getting 17-year-old girls into trouble, had a rather sad opinion of women and the role they play. In a well publicised trial that condemned Berlusconi of paying Karima el-Mahroug for sex – a minor at the time – he is quoted as saying, “Girls, women, are by nature exhibitionists.”
Swimming With God
The bitter dispute between those supporting and opposing the right of Islamic women to wear a burkini – a modified form of the burka, used for swimming – on public beaches, is just as senseless as the law prohibiting its use. If I want to spend a few hours on the beach, fully dressed, and swim in my jeans, there is no law that prohibits me from doing so. However, under an agreed dress-code, and out of respect for others, I would not swim fully dressed. The same should apply to these women, unless there is a complete prohibition of wearing a religious outfit in all public places. That is the only valid reason for prohibiting the use of burkini’s at a public beach, since these women are, in fact swimming in a bathing suit. If applied, the logic of the argument should be carried out to its conclusion, and religious garments completely banned. However, the fundamental right to dress freely should not be undermined. The fact that some Islamic women may be forced to wear religious clothing is a completely different argument, and must not be considered in the context of the burkini.
Problems arise with the establishment of house-rules in the private sector. Rules can be specific and in conflict with those applied elsewhere. If I invite someone around for dinner, I expect him not to smoke in my house due to my allergy to cigarette smoke. I have a perfectly valid and clinically proven reason that must be respected.
This brings me back to my experience at the hotel. Although I had to abide by the house-rules, the reasons they were based on were fallacious. In July this year, the owner of a rented holiday flat in Marseilles, France, asked a woman to pay €490 in order for the communal swimming pool to be cleaned. She was renting the flat with her husband and three children and had swum in a burkini. According to the flat proprietor, the pool had been infected. The proprietor also asked for damages due to the fact that the pool could not be used for 2 days, due to it being cleaned. He used the deposit the family had paid before arriving as a down-payment for the costs. The man’s attitude towards the Islamic family is, at best, subjective and wrong and, at worst, discriminatory. Burkinis are an adapted form of the burka, and have been specifically designed for swimming. Their ban is unwarranted unless scientifically proven that their use in a swimming pool represents a health hazard to other users. If perceived as a health threat in certain settings, religious clothing should not be worn unless it complies with safety guidelines that have been elaborated after evaluation of the latest scientific literature. Islamic women have to comply with these guidelines, whether they like it or not, and cannot sue their employer on the grounds of discrimination.
The problems related to religious dress are complex and emotional. Although minorities should be protected and not discriminated against, what would you do, as an employer, if one of your female employees turned up on a Monday morning dressed in a burka? It can happen, and the answer to the question is not as straight forward as you might think.
George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.