We’re finally experiencing some semblance of a scorching summer in London. Which means in my current child-carrying state, I’m approximately ten degrees hotter than everyone else. On the tube, whilst I’m desperate to spread my legs wide and fan my nether regions with a giant palm frond, I’m refraining because of this little thing called modesty loitering in the back of my mind.
Favouring all things buttoned-up right from the get-go
Incidentally the word modesty has been making headlines, primarily instigated by the furore that has erupted in France over the regional banning of “ostentatiously religious dress” to avoid “trouble to public order”. The wording in the original bylaw is not in reference to a Catholic nun’s habit or an Orthodox Jewish woman’s four piece swimsuit (who else think this is kind of chic?). There goes the French principle of supposed laïcité (secularism). It’s pointedly targeted at the burqini, created in 2004 by Aheda Zanetti to enable her niece to play netball. In an opinion piece for the Guardian, she has responded to the bans vehemently. “You’ve taken a product that symbolised happiness and joyfulness and fitness, and turned it into a product of hatred.”
In We are Handsome in Yosemite
It’s an ideological battleground that has piqued my interest because pregnancy-induced sweaty spells aside, I’m personally an advocate of keeping public flesh exposure to the minimum. Not because of religion. Not because of a stern patriarchal overlord policing my attire. Simply because of choice. Ever since I could remember, I’ve been TeamSwimsuit vs. TeamBikini. What began as a teenage embarrassment over what I perceived to be a soft rice pillow, non-worked out belly, eventually developed into a present day acceptance that I generally feel more comfortable and jollier in a garment that isn’t precariously held together with spaghetti straps. Burqini critics have pointed out the practicality of a garment that physically makes you hot in the sun, and adds drag in the sea. Speaking as someone who regularly dons, leggings and long sleeved swim tops on the beach, mental comfort easily overrides this argument. FEELing comfortable often has nothing to do with body temperatures or physical coverage of the skin.
In amongst the beach bods back in 2011 on Huntington Beach
Early Style Bubble readers might remember this one hilarious shot of me descending into California for the first time, clothed in not one but three layers, looking decidedly out of place at the US Open of Surf on Huntington Beach. A few stares came my way from the bronzed young things in their tie- dye bikinis, denim cut-offs and body painted booty calls. Sure, I was a few degrees hotter but also felt free to wander without the feeling that eyes are prying into my prickly-heat-rashed skin.
Minus the hood, this Lesia Paramonova printed leggings and bodysuit plus Nike x Sacai skirt could be an elaborate burqini ensemble
What I’m trying to say is that modesty, isn’t a concept purely restricted to a single religion, or sex for that matter. And it’s not necessarily invoked by the need to subjugate to a male cleric either. It’s a sunburn prone man feeling like he doesn’t want to end up lobster red, with a long sleeved tee over his swim trunks. It’s women like my mother, who after her mastectomy, didn’t have the confidence to wear a regular swimsuit and actually investigated the option of buying a burqini (in the end on our Californian trip, she wore a long-sleeved swim top and a DIY swim suit, padded out on one side of the chest). It’s people like me who can’t shake the feeling that a bikini immediately puts your body centre stage in an appearance-conscious world in a way that I’m personally not comfortable with. This summer, a banned campaign demanding women to be “beach-ready” is just one example of the flip side to this coin, where women routinely face societal pressures to look a certain way, and the volume of fabric worn somehow determines whether you’re “beach-ready” in the eyes of others. And it goes without saying that I have much love for the bikini in all its forms worn by others. To each their own, that’s the question at hand here.
Tried and tested vintage Vivienne Westwood swimsuit
That’s perhaps an internalised demon that points to my own body-related insecurities, but to witness the asserted removal of something as innocent as a long sleeved top, is to needlessly eliminate an alternative approach towards beach attire that mentally enables more women to enjoy the beach at their leisure. It’s the loss of autonomy over what we wear that irks me.
The counter argument goes that it’s rich to talk of autonomy where Islam women are concerned, given that modesty is foisted and forced upon them. To that I would say that it is simply impossible to assume that EVERY woman that dons a burqini is wearing one under duress. If anything, a ban pushes women previously unable to enjoy pools and the beach, back under the shade of a male-dominated umbrella. By the same logic, you could question the bikini as a symbol of female oppression. Can we 100% guarantee that every single woman wearing a bikini isn’t under some sort of pressure to do so to gain the material approval of their peers or the opposite sex. Both are implausible assumptions to immediately deduce on first appearances.
The language employed by French politicians is also disconcerting. “The burkini has the same logic as the burqa: hide women’s bodies in order to control them, “ said Laurence Rossignol, the French minister for women’s rights. “The burkina is not compatible with the values of the French republic,” says prime minister Manuel Valls. “We don’t imprison women behind fabric,” says president hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy. There’s a narrative emerging that to uphold Western, or specifically French notions of freedom is to place the female body on show – forcibly, in the case of the woman who was photographed on the beach removing her top (not a burqini) to prove she was wearing a swimsuit underneath. That’s a dodgy line pursue once you peer into the wormhole of the murky world of female sexploitation.
By the French politicians’ black-and-white assertions, both my mother and I should be freeing our flesh, shaking off those fabric-based shackles. But of course, down in Nice, Cannes or any number of those towns, no police officer would bother us. I could well have purchased a burqini for my mum and she’d be free to bathe away, in her lycra-covered limbs. And I too can wear my Marc by Marc Jacobs long sleeved swim top with a pair of Nike skirted leggings with a floppy sunhat. Our ethnicity frees us from suspicions. And so the garment in question is merely a smokescreen for latent Islamaphobia. It’s not the actual fabric that is the problem, but the visual signals that a headscarf + long-sleeved garments and covered legs on a visibly Muslim person sends out to the casual onlooker. We can’t prevent extremists from ploughing through promenades with trucks, but we can keep any visible signifiers of Islam out of the public eye, lest they provoke their ire in what is a tension-filled atmosphere. The Conseil D’Etat has overturned the ban on Friday but Sarkozy and the rightwing like continue to campaign for a nationwide ban and no doubt as France’s presidential campaign picks up pace, it’s an issue that won’t die down just yet. Funny how it’s fallen upon an innocuous seamed wetsuit – a garment that in itself is fit for purpose across all religions and ethnicities – to hash out the weight of this political tumult.