Crossing the culture from Rachel Thorpe: Itsy bitsy teeny weeny


‘I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety’ (1 Timothy 2.9).

A hot summer saw many of us dashing to the shops in search of new swimwear.

But who says it has to be itsy bitsy? That’s the question Jessica Rey is asking. The Catholic actress-turned-author launched a swimwear company in 2008 and simultaneously started a personal campaign to promote modesty. One of her YouTube videos on the evolution of the female swimsuit — posted in mid-June — has already been viewed over 800,000 times.

She’s obviously touched a nerve. How have bikinis become so popular and what does it say about our society’s approach to the issue of modesty?

A brief history

The bikini arrived with a bang in 1946 when it was unveiled by its creator, the French engineer Louis Réard. Its name was a reference to ‘The Bomb’, a recent design of Réard’s rival Jacques Heim. It also paid tribute to the atomic bomb testing site ‘Bikini Atoll’: Réard was sure that people’s reaction to it would be more drastic than their shock after America bombed Japan.

He was right. Made from four triangles of fabric totalling a mere 30 square inches, his bikini was so scandalous that no model would wear it. Réard was undeterred and hired a 19-year-old nude dancer called Micheline Bernardini to preview his itsy bitsy newspaper-print-patterned two-piece. It was a hit with the media and the men: Bernardini had soon received fan mail from over 50,000 of them.

For the next 20 years the bikini remained the preserve of the few, who were considered to be both tactless and licentious. Then came the sexual revolution of the 60s, which made the bikini a symbol of women’s emancipation and power. Now it is, perhaps, a new power symbol in the world of fashion; according to the New York Times, the bikini is ‘the millennial equivalent of the power suit’.

The tide is turning

However, new voices, like that of Jessica Rey, are promoting a different view. Rey says: ‘My goal is to disprove the age old notion that when it comes to swimsuits, less is more’. Writer Joan Jacobs Brumberg agrees that it is imperative for us to move away from the bikini and the way it promotes bodily exposure, which can ‘exert a noose-like grip on the psyche and physical health of girls and women’.

These are strong claims, but will they be enough to discourage the shoppers who spent $8 billion on bikinis last year? According to Rey, there is hope that the tide may turn.

She believes that women have a natural, God-given ‘sense of modesty […] that has been stripped away by today’s culture’. Indeed, the woman in Brian Hyland’s 1960 novelty song ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ is the original proof. Wearing her bikini, she is ‘as nervous as she could be’ and constantly ‘afraid that somebody would see’. Why is she so concerned? Not just because the bikini is a controversial item of clothing, but because she has an innate sense of dignity and modesty which make her feel uncomfortable exposing so much of her body in public.

Revealing our dignity

Modern society has anesthetised many to this kind of concern. But, in Rey’s definition, this sense of modesty is what we need to recapture. As those made in God’s image and likeness, women need to reclaim their true source of beauty: ‘Your beauty should not come from outward adornment […] Instead, it should be that of your inner self […] For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful’ ( 1 Peter 3.2-5, NIV).

It is not about hiding our bodies because they are bad, but about revealing our dignity. It is not about dressing frumpily and rejecting fashion, but about reclaiming our images as daughters of God. It may not be a popular view, but it is essential that we continue to live by it and promote it. Who knows, it may be that such a view could become as explosive as the bikini itself. Jessica Rey’s book on modesty, entitled Decent Exposure, is due to be released soon.

Rachel Thorpe writes the ‘Crossing the culture’ column for EN and works as an events planner and freelance writer in Cambridge. More of her articles can be found at www.rachelthorpe.com

This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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