The sun is out and summer is here, which means a solid two months of beaches and pools. In years past, that would mean bikinis galore, but looking at popular swim suit retailers this year, we are seeing a shift in the status quo—bikinis, while by no means gone, have been sent to the back of the line with the resurgence of the once-rejected one-piece. In fact, according to retail data source EDITED, one-pieces are selling three times faster this year than last.
We've always been big fans of the one-piece here at Verily, especially with so many cute options available. But we are left to ponder why this shift has occurred. For years, one-piece options were hard to find (Land's End catalogue, anyone?), and the choice to wear a one-piece was basically akin to wearing a sign on your forehead that said, "I'm not cool." Truth-be-told, I remember feeling self-conscious and sure that I was the only one at the beach or pool who wasn't allowed to don a two-piece when I was younger.
Not long ago, many would be viewed as prude for opting out of wearing a bikini; now cool-girl icons such as Beyoncé, Kristen Dunst, and Selena Gomez are sporting one-pieces regularly. Brands such as ASOS, Topshop, and Anthropologie have the one-piece bathing suit, not the string bikini, as their must-have item this summer season.
The return of the one-piece is a prime example on how all trends are cyclical—all fashions are destined to return to notoriety at one point or another. But, if the return of the one-piece is proof of anything it's that women's swimwear is a powerful lens that reveals much about women's values at any given time in history—including now.
We’ve come so far from the bikini’s original effect—given its name by French engineer Louis Réard in 1946 in honor of Bikini Atoll because, “this new suit would have the same explosive effect as splitting the atom did on its island namesake.” Rumor has it that Réard couldn't even find a real model willing to don the bikini and had to call upon an exotic dancer. Furthermore, during one ad campaign, Réard declared that a two-piece wasn't a real bikini "unless it could be pulled through a wedding ring."
It's almost difficult to put this shift into perspective. A mere hundred years ago women were being arrested for wearing bathing suits that would today be considered more modest than long underwear. The twentieth century saw massive shifts in women's roles. The early 1900s saw the rise of the Women's Suffrage movement. During World War II, women became much more independent, the result of taking over households and flocking to factories while the men were overseas fighting. It's not surprising then, that by 1946, the right cultural environment was brewing for the bikini to go mainstream.
The height of bikini emergence truly came during the '60s in the height of second wave feminism. Women were told that a surefire way to assert equality was to wear whatever we wanted. By the 1980s and '90s, though, that promise didn't seem to bear out. What was born from a desire for women's liberation, swimwear instead became one of common culture's most obvious means of sexualization and objectification.
For years we have equated sexuality and exposure as the ultimate representation of our power and strength. However, when we start making sexy the predominant representation of strength, it becomes problematic. Muslim scholar and TED talk veteran, Dalia Mogahed, posed an interesting question to Trevor Noah on the Daily Show about the privatization of sexuality. "What are we saying when we say that taking away a woman’s sexuality [from the public eye] or privatizing a woman’s sexuality, we’re oppressing her; what does that mean, what does that say about the source of a woman’s power?” Noah replied, “We’re saying that a woman is only strong if she is sexy in public?”
Against the current of the "exposure equals power" narrative that celebs such as Kim Kardashian and Demi Lovato have invoked to justify nude photos, many women today want virtually the opposite. We want to know that it doesn't take unabashed nudity and thereby inherent sexuality for us to be noticed or heard. Donning a one-piece is a way to reclaim our bodies, to say swimming isn't an act of sex. A Marie Claire poll of men's opinions about swimsuits revealed that 93 percent of men most liked a standard bikini silhouette, and many attributed their preference to the fact that it looked most like a woman wearing a bra and panties. By choosing more modest bathing suits, women are defying that script, and on a basic level, finding a way back to being able to enjoy swimming for the fun of it—not for the show.
This resurgence is encouraging to me. In some ways the rise of sexy swimwear was something that needed to happen. For a time, there was valuable social progress that paralleled less restrictive swimwear. But I'm happy so see that the pendulum is swinging the other way. There will always be women in itty bitty bikinis, and that's fine. But the more we allow society to see all types of women—not just those labeled as matronly or overly conservative—choosing more modest swimwear, the more normal it will become and the more a one-piece, not a string bikini, will represent confidence.
While not all of the one-pieces make me excited—to be sure, there are still one-pieces that are incredibly sexualized—I am pleased that more and more options exist to find a suit that focuses more on flattery to one's body type and sense of dignity. As I have written in the past, I believe there can be aspects of femininity—and feminism—in covering oneself. Here's to a swimsuit season filled with self-assurance.
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