A Modest Free for All

A Modest Free for All

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. 

childmeFavouring 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.”

IMG_8241In 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. 

usopensurfIn 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.   

bigsurMinus 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.  

palmspringsTried 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. 

vantagenewsFrom VantageNews.com

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. 



Leave a comment
  1. Charlotte

    2016-08-28 at 1:18 PM

    This article is very well written. By far the most relatable I have read so far on the topic. At the beginning of summer my fellow students mocked: Right, and you must be that type (!) of girl that goes tanning in a swimsuit. Which caused a lot of laughter. I am the type that does not feel comfortable showing a lot of skin in public. Same as you, it started out as embarrassment and slowly I started to realise it is simply more me. I truly feel more complete with layers. Since I am always in turtlenecks etc. they were right to guess that I prefer a swimsuit. It was the tone that bothered me. We were planning a trip to celebrate our MA diplomas and I couldn’t help but feel worried about my choice. That is why your words strike home (“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”). I’m happy you publish your thoughts. It makes me feel more comfortable knowing other people feel and think about this the same. I’ve shared the article with a Muslimah friend who I’m sure loves reading this.

  2. Kazuko

    2016-08-28 at 1:50 PM

    Thank you for this post. I agree with you.
    Telling a woman what to wear – or not to wear – is never acceptable.
    The scene of the poor woman being forced to take off her burkini was just humiliating, and I feel it goes totally against what countries like France stand for – liberty, for example.

  3. Lux

    2016-08-28 at 2:47 PM

    Well written – totally agree.

  4. Gerlinde Lang

    2016-08-28 at 6:01 PM

    This is probably the well balanced article i have benn waiting for. as for mastectomy: i had one last year and i am using my old padded bikini again. nobody even bats an eyelash. i also bought a new yellow esther williams swinmsuit with cherries on it which come up high in the front being a vintage pattern and then had a pocket for an ersatz breast pillow sown in. maybe you mother wants to try!

  5. Kamicha

    2016-08-28 at 6:18 PM

    Very, very important points, absolutely wonderfully written about the issues almost too hot to handle right now.

    Still a big fan of Style Bubble – although too lazy to comment or share these days. But keep up the great work!

  6. Kamicha

    2016-08-28 at 6:19 PM

    And fabric is a pretty safe sunscreen as well 🙂

  7. Marta

    2016-08-28 at 7:18 PM

    You are adorable no matter what you do.
    Keep it up. You give me hope.

  8. Linda B

    2016-08-28 at 11:41 PM

    I echo the other comments–this was so well written, Susie! Thank you for putting all this into common sense language, that anyone should be able to understand. Sadly, plenty still won’t get it. But we have to keep trying!

    You’ve given me some food for thought personally too–I really have the freedom to figure out my own swimming costume, like you have.

  9. Becca

    2016-08-29 at 3:06 AM

    Thank you so much for writing this…I heard about this briefly but you were able to capture in words exactly some of the thoughts I had about it..you hit the nail right on the goddang head, honestly.

  10. Alice

    2016-08-29 at 9:08 AM

    I do agree wit you! I don’t agree with others that say about police that is humiliating those burkini womans. Just to remember the fact that in 1970-’80 they didn’t wear any burka, burkini and so on. Actually there was a free spirit. What happen there in the last 30 years we don’t want here.

  11. Ev

    2016-08-29 at 9:49 AM

    Great photos 🙂

  12. southcast

    2016-08-29 at 10:07 AM

    great post 🙂

  13. sgh

    2016-08-29 at 11:55 AM

    Forcing and pressurizing women to take something off is as backwards as forcing and pressurizing them to wear certain things.
    It is a sad state of affairs but I would just like to say that this proves how political the matter of clothing can be and how full of meaning the garments we wear are. Choosing what to wear is not really as frivolous as it is often portrayed as.

  14. congrats_susie!

    2016-08-30 at 5:40 PM

    Great article. Also, congratulations on your pregnancy!!

  15. midula

    2016-08-31 at 12:52 PM

    Fabulous written article. Really enjoyed reading this very balanced view especially with your “beach ready” photos. My mum wears a sari and I can’t imagine anyone asking her to take it off if she went to the beach. She swims in it too and finds it comfortable because her body is not on show.

  16. Mads

    2016-09-02 at 8:30 PM

    Totally relate to the palm frond and nether regions – pregnancy in London’s heat isn’t for the faint of heart x

  17. ash

    2016-09-02 at 10:37 PM
  18. Fernanda

    2016-09-05 at 1:51 PM

    Hear hear Susie. Let women be free to wear what they want on the beach and let’s not equate near nudity with liberation. We should protect the right to wear a bikini, a one piece, or a burkini. A woman who can swim or sit out in the sun for a while is a happier, healthier woman. Who are the politicians to say what she should wear?

  19. consulenza d immagine

    2016-09-06 at 2:00 PM

    Very inspirational pictures!
    Your blog is so awesome.
    Consulenza d’immagine

  20. Priya Puri

    2016-09-09 at 9:38 AM

    Thanks for your perspective on this Suzie. Very well written.

  21. Nicola Miller

    2016-09-12 at 8:09 AM

    I’m modest too and those years when I wore a bikini were marked by a constant intrapersonal flinching from the gaze of men. Once I discovered the joys of the maillot as worn by Victoria Principal and Linda Gray in those heady Dallas years, I never looked back. A midnight blue, steel grey or black one piece makes me feel as sleek as a seal, it hides the parts of my body I do not wish strangers to look at and it enables me to run, jump, sit and relax without worrying that my labia, nipples or bumcrack have escaped and made a bid for freedom.

    I’m not buying the French governments argument. They don’t care about my ‘freedom’. They want their pretty beaches full of semi-naked bronzed (not naturally brown) women so they look good in the tourism photographs. They don’t see brown or black as beautiful but they do want brown and black flesh on display so they can apply their reductive male gaze to it and award it marks out of ten in a competition that is rigged against them. And the French women who sat there whilst this woman was sexually assaulted on the beach (because that’s what it was when you force a woman to strip in public), they should be ashamed of their internalised patriarchy.

  22. Eléonore

    2016-09-16 at 9:04 AM

    Thank you for this well written piece. You have raised very important points, and I feel the same way about the right to wear whatever one pleases (whether bikini or burkini).
    However, things must be understood in a wider context. The 14th of July (on Bastille day), a sociopath has killed about 80 people in the name of Daesh. It happened in Nice (South of France), one of the most sought after holiday destinations for many French people. The country has just been through quite a number of horrific terrorist attacks in the past 2 years, which has sadly raised too much focus on the Muslim community, its way to practice faith etc… People are scared and confused about Islam : it is clear that many lack basic knowledge about it. Because people tend to mix Islam, Jihad, radical practices etc, they are totally freaking out, which politicians use to their advantage. While a certain number of these politicians are pointing fingers, the Muslim community has withdrawn into itself, feeling left out and accused of something completely out of its hands.
    The situation has led to a major rejection of public display of faith, Islam in particular.
    The government has not passed any laws to prohibit burkinis, but 3 or 4 mayors of coastal cities have. It hurts our freedom, it despises Muslims, it is condescending towards ALL women: a despicable policy.
    I just wanted to stress the fact that this whole thing happened in a paranoid context, as well as close to future presidential elections.

  23. Truyện tranh

    2016-09-21 at 7:28 AM

    Love It!

  24. fashion blogger

    2016-10-02 at 9:06 PM

    very amazing article, i agree with you
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  25. www.elisanegro.com

    2016-10-06 at 5:48 AM

    Amazing outfit and location.
    I all ’em all.

  26. narendra

    2017-04-22 at 4:39 AM

    Great post!
    Awesome photos!

  27. priyanka

    2017-05-25 at 5:36 AM

    Awesome place!!
    beautifully captured 🙂

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