A history of the bikini, a question of legalism

What is modesty?

I’m asking the question within the context of last month’s history of the bikini video that went viral. You likely saw it, the one where a swimsuit designer championed modesty and feminine beauty. Jessica Rey, and her swimsuit line, are a fresh voice in a ‘sex sells’ fashion culture. Her belief that ‘less isn’t more’ provides a welcome contrast to the industry standard established by Victoria’s Secret.

Even so, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in aftermath of Rey’s speech going viral.

We’ve been drawn to the fascinating story of the bikini’s sordid history: how scandalous it once was to reveal the belly button, how no professional models would wear the swimsuit, how a stripper had to be hired instead, and so on. But in doing so, we’ve taken an oddly selective view of history.

Why not focus on fashion’s other sordid histories as well? Say, for example, the history of lipstick?

There was a time when lipstick was as scandalous as the bikini would prove to be. In the 1770’s British lawmakers proposed that marriages should be annulled if the woman wore lipstick prior to the wedding. No respectable woman wore lipstick throughout the 19th century, as it was commonly understood and accepted that the only people who wore lipstick were… prostitutes.

As far as I can tell, Jessica Rey was wearing lipstick in her now-famous speech.

We run a risk every time we define modesty within the narrow confines of a previous era’s styles and standards. I hope my daughters wear something like Rey’s swimwear, and my wife raves over how fashionable they are (“Ooooh, SO cute!”). But we have to admit that she has somewhat arbitrarily chosen one generation’s swimsuits to represent modesty for all time. The truth is, our generation’s belly button was another’s upper thigh, which was another’s ankles. To state it even more simply, Audrey Hepburn may have worn Rey’s styles, but Mary, the mother of Jesus, would not have.

Must modesty always be defined by last generation’s chic? I hope not.

I worry that our enthusiastic embrace of Rey may inadvertently crush her fresh voice under the weight of legalism. I fear we may make one-piece suits the only means to modesty. I worry, you see, because modesty, and purity itself, is far too valuable to be lost to legalism.

So let’s echo Rey’s call to help our daughters find clothes to wear that actually empower them, rather than dehumanize them. Unfortunately, the question of modesty in particular is renown for its tendency to descend into dehumanizing legalism, and too many young ladies have been trapped in an oppressive culture that only sees them for what they wear in the water. The Princeton study demonstrates that bikinis can reduce women to objects in the eyes of many men. But I also fear that it can go the other way, that women can be just as objectified, and our daughters can be just as defined by their swimsuits, by those righteous men who pin their own moral struggles on the shoulders of the women and girls in their lives.

Both ends of the pendulum dishonor our daughters.

So let’s follow Rey, but let’s avoid twisting her message. Let’s follow her example as she proclaims, “We were made beautiful, in His image and likeness,” and stand with her as we ask the crucial question, “How will you use your beauty?”

But let’s not reduce modesty to mere inches of fabric.

Let’s acknowledge the subjective nature of modesty, while adhering to the universal nature of purity. Let’s strive for dignity and beauty, but let’s not choose any one generation’s style as the sole standard of either.

Let’s continue to work together to (like Rey is doing) find our generation’s standard of beauty, modesty, and purity that honors both God and women.


About Tim Owens

I'm a husband, father, and Christ follower. I also live in Albany, NY, where I work as a pastor.
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One Response to A history of the bikini, a question of legalism

  1. Faith says:

    Love this!! As a mom of daughters it is difficult to sometimes find modest yet trendy and let’s face it: trends are sooooo important when a child is in the teens to age 16 range. Heck, trends r still important in MY age range! Lol. I’m thankful we are in a church that has discussed modesty with our teen groups yet gives us parents the “rights” (for lack of a better word) of deciding what is ok in our own families. In other words, no legalistic view towards it I also like our youth group “rule” of no speedos for the guys at youth group events and no 2 pieces for the girls. Sadly, it is difficult to find inexpensive, non-designer one pieces for my teens so my own 14 yr old will be going to youth group camp with a 2piece and a tee shirt….LOL…and yes, she will be modest 🙂 great post Tim!! We appreciate you!

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