"My nightmare came true," said Tina Fey, "And I was photographed in my bathing suit in Florida. Thankfully I was mostly submerged." The quip ran in response to recent photographs that surfaced of the 30 Rock star and her family on vacation at Disney World. Fey has never expressed concern with or even interest in trying to live up to some kind of unrealistic body or beauty standards, and her tone suggests the characteristic humor Fey evinces when commenting on news that is, in fact, non-news. Yet her words also belie a wink and a nod to an anxiety universally shared by women in relation to swimwear, specifically the kind that contain your dread (and sometimes not much else) in three pieces of cloth: the bikini.
I remember my first bikini. I was five. The neon green triangles rested somewhere in the vicinity of my shoulders, my little girl belly pouted over the green bottoms with their crazy tangle of spaghetti ties, which I am pretty sure my mother knotted up once at the start of summer and just let me wiggle in and out of the bottoms as necessary. I had other bikinis -- white ones cut through with seizure-inducing red, yellow, and green stripes, pink ones the shade of cupcake frosting, and even a bikini doused in garish, prison jumpsuit orange. All were bought on the cheap at either end of the year sales at K-mart or from second hand stores. All of them ill-fitted to my doughy, pre-hormonal body. I hardly cared. The suits were an extension of dress-up (or down, in this case, I suppose); they were in league with the authentic ballerina costume I begged my mother to buy me at a yard sale and that I rocked on and off for an entire summer, around the house, at our summer place, out in the backyard. Of course, somewhere between the whimsy of a five-year-old and the reality of a pubescent-something-year old it became dazzling clear bikinis belonged on someone else's body, someone who looked more like the women in magazines and on popular TV shows. Oh, the triangles go around your... right.
For most women, once that reptilian switch is flicked from "bikini ready" to "bikini, yeah right" there is no going back. There is only the whispered prayer that a generous designer will bring back the ruffled blouses and kicky pantaloons that dominated the beach dressing gown fads of the early twentieth century. When did we start giving bikinis so much power? Answer: 1947.
The year was 1947. The world was in a period of pretty high self-esteem, what with a little something called the defeat of Hitler and all, and a Parisian engineer named Louis Réard decided that the perfect thing to cap off this feel-good time of peace sanctions and embargo lifts on butter and lead was a bathing costume made with just 30 inches of fabric. Réard named his creation the bikini after the exotic Bikini Atoll islands located in the Pacific Ocean and recent home to the first atomic bomb tests. One can imagine that morning meeting with Réard: "Nuclear bomb, 'bomb shell,' like, you know, a really attractive woman... anybody? The suit is about sexiness, people! C'mon!" At first Europeans and even Mediterraneans were scandalized by the suit and bikini bans went into effect on beaches across many towns. Despite these efforts, the popularity of the bikini climbed along with its demand, which prompted Réard to launch an aggressive public relations campaign where he stated, "It's not a real bikini unless it can be pulled through a wedding ring." Had he said "onion ring," he might have gotten a pass. Instead, Réard helped set in motion a mindset about both the bathing suit (the tinier the better) and the idealized body meant to fill it (the tinier the better).
The bikini has not just become a fetishized item of clothing. It functions as a perverse standard by which women are meant to measure their self-worth against. When in reality all it measures is your willingness to enter into an unholy bargain with the self-punishing diet Devil. Feeling good about your post-pregnancy body, new mom? Not so fast, where's your bikini? The Jersey Shore star guidette, Snooki Polizzi, is the latest pop culture icon to pony up photographs of herself "flaunting" her bikini body as if this constitutes some kind of legitimate accomplishment. You had the baby, Snooki, that's your body's greatest feat. End of list. Magazines and websites follow suit in stoking the bikini madness by habitually circulating images of models and celebrities in their swim wear. The eagerly anticipated Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition never disappoints in the ways editors push the boundaries of decorum and fabric. Oh, I see, the bikini is made of sand! Popular print and web media jack up their celebrity swimsuit exposés with buzzy headlines such as "Hottest Celebrity Bikini Bodies Over 50," "Stars Caught in Their Hot Bikinis," and "Hot, Sexy, Bikini, Hot, Sexy-Sex, Bikinis, Hot." (The suit is about sexiness people! C'mon!).
All of this is to say that women need to remember who is in charge when it comes to our bodies and the products and goods we use on them. A woman should not put her body in service to the arbitrary significance assigned to 30-inches or less of material. She should put it in service to a healthy life-style, to an appreciation of her body for all its gifts rather than in appraisal for all the ways it falls short of some Parisian engineer's design, and, of course, to onion rings, naturally.
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