A Response to Jessica Rey’s “Evolution of the Swimsuit”

Jessica Rey evolution of the swimsuit
Jessica Rey, left, the designer behind Rey Swimwear, right.

An introduction to the modesty discussion

After receiving my fourth email from my readers about Jessica Rey’s speech on the evolution of the swimsuit at the recent Q conference, I get the hint. It’s time for me to start talking about modesty.

I’ve been avoiding the topic since before Unwrinkling’s christening for a few reasons: Firstly, I grew up in a community in which modesty was over-emphasized. Secondly, I don’t want to contribute to the grossly incorrect notion that the Bible only addresses fashion in the context of modesty. But lastly, I’ve been avoiding the topic because, even if I recognize it as important and worth discussing, there’s still so much I’m processing myself. It’s one thing to know what’s right and not always act in accordance with that (as I admitted to doing here). It’s another to be less than 100% certain about what’s right in the first place.

That being said, I’m trying to tackle it anyway, but I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a lot I haven’t sorted out. Please adjust your grace-o-meter accordingly.

Considering that Jessica Rey’s presentation is what sparked the interest of a number of you, that is what I’m primarily going to address now. But consider this an introduction to my own discussion of modesty—a mere appetizer to prepare you for the fuller discussion to come.

Firstly, if you haven’t seen Jessica Rey’s presentation, you can watch it here.

Here’s my initial response:

1. While it’s certainly interesting that the first bikini was debuted on a stripper because no other models would wear it, I would argue that this piece of information unfairly links bikinis with sexual looseness. It is quite likely that you would be unable to persuade any female other than a prostitute to show her upper thigh in the Ancient Near East; this doesn’t mean that women who show their upper thigh in the modern West should be linked with licentiousness today. This leads to the second observation:

2. Modesty is a product of culture. That’s not to say that everything is relative and we should throw out every notion of modesty because “it’s all subjective anyway;” nonetheless, it’s worth noting that what is considered modest in one culture would be completely inappropriate in another. What Rey wears in her presentation seems quite conservative by Western standards today, but rewind a few hundred years and the amount of leg (or arm) showing would be a disgrace.

Vintage swimsuits as seen on the beach in South Africa
Vintage swimsuits as seen on the beach in South Africa

3. Rey looks to the 1950s—the period right before the bikini’s popularity explosion—as a time when modesty still reigned on the beach, and points out that the bikini “was not an instant hit in the United States.” However, her decision to treat the one-pieces or belly-button-covering two-pieces of the 50s as ideal feels arbitrary.* If turning back time in order to regain modesty, why stop there? Why not re-claim the “bath machines” that she jokes about? It is quite probable that each stage in the evolution of the swimsuit was resisted by a portion of society until the shock of seeing more skin wore off.

*If modesty is supposed to celebrate and protect women’s dignity, choosing the 50s as the cut-off point seems all the more ironic. Why focus on an era in which women were commonly treated as nothing more than baby-making machines meant for serving their husbands in the kitchen?

Blah Blah blah
50s-era ad from All That Jazz. Check out more misogynistic ads from this period here.

4. Rey refers to a 2009 Princeton study in which pictures of bikini-clad women evoked objectification in male viewers’ brains. Though the results of this study have attracted attention for good reason, the study is incomplete in a number of ways. Might other sexualized images of women have evoked similar responses, bikini- or otherwise-clad? What would the men’s responses have been if women with average bodies were pictured in bikinis? What if their responses to live people were measured, instead of 2D pictures? In short, can we really be certain that the bikini is to blame for these men’s responses?

5. Rey’s claim that the bikini gives a woman the “power to shut down a man’s ability to see her as a person,” as opposed to an object, gives men too little credit. Though I understand her point about the responses bikinis can evoke, to act as though they render men incapable of choosing their thoughts goes too far. Bikinis may or may not stimulate particular attitudes towards women; they certainly cannot force them.

6. Though I appreciate Audrey Hepburn’s style and elegance as much as the next girl, her petite figure makes using her as a modesty muse a bit sticky. A simple, form-fitting dress with a sweetheart neckline (aka, most wedding dresses today) that would seem quite modest on Audrey Hepburn’s figure could come across as positively provocative on someone like Sofia Vergara, simply as a result of the latter’s well-endowed curves. Rey’s affirmation of Hepburn as an icon of modesty doesn’t take into account larger women with more “feminine” figures whose cleavage wouldn’t be covered by most of Rey’s designs.

Audrey Hepburn LBD
Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina, 1954
sofia vergara lbd
Sofia Vergara, wearing Dolce and Gabbana, 2012

*It’s been noted that Rey’s line doesn’t include any options for plus sizes, although Rey Swimwear’s Facebook page has hinted that the line will expand to include larger sizes in upcoming seasons.

Despite the numerous flaws I see in Rey’s reasoning, the truth is that I respect her greatly. I wish more Christians would respond to the fashion industry as she has. Seeing something discordant with her faith, she then sought to create an alternative. In my estimation, there are plenty of things she’s doing right—I think some of Rey’s designs are genuinely cute, and I love that she’s taking care to stay sweatshop-free, even if it drives her prices up. And though I pointed out problems with relying on the Princeton bikini study, the truth is that I don’t think it can be completely disregarded, either.

In the end, I don’t think Rey’s message deserves some of the vehemence it has provoked.  Would it really be the end of the world if one-pieces became more common again? I certainly wouldn’t mind. Nonetheless, overlooking the flaws in her presentation benefits no one, and I think her claims deserve critical assessment. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with Rey’s viewpoint, I’m grateful for the discussion it has provoked about modesty in Christian spheres.

Note: I do not own any of the photos in this particular post.

You’ll hear more of my own opinion on the discussion in upcoming posts, but I’d love to hear yours, too. Please comment or email me with your thoughts!

UPDATE 7/25/13: See my full modesty series here: Part I – Problems with Modesty Doctrine, Part II – Why we can’t do away with modesty doctrine, and Part III – A way out of the modesty morass.

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