The XX Factor

Should a Woman in a Bikini Expect to Be “Taken Seriously”? (Yes.)

These bathing suits do not stand between women and equality.

Photo by Sonny Tumbelaka/AFP/Getty Images

Oh boy, Christians are once again embroiled in an online debate about modesty. The latest bit of intrafaith squabbling about lady bodies sprung from a talk by actress, designer, and Christian Jessica Rey about the evolution of the bathing suit. Rey’s argument is that the more skin women show, the harder it is on men to force themselves to see women as people. (She recommends one-piece bathing suits; apparently the difference between “modest” and “immodest” is the belly button, a line that would surprise people from cultures that require women to cover their hair or, say, knees to achieve modesty.) Unsurprisingly, Rey ignores the fact that bathing suits have gotten skimpier as women’s actual rights and power have grown, focusing strictly on questionable research that purportedly shows men can’t think of women as people if they can see the belly button. 

Katelyn Beaty, writing for the Atlantic, rejects the notion that it’s a woman’s duty to try to control what goes on in men’s heads and even gloriously points out that it’s a short leap from blaming women’s clothes for men’s thoughts to blaming women’s clothes for getting women raped. Still, she’s eager to agree with Rey that women can somehow manipulate how much power they have in the world by adjusting their hemlines:

Here, there is freedom for individual women to practice modesty not primarily to preserve men’s sexual purity, but to preserve their own dignity. To show in outward form the inward truth that they matter to society for their minds, their leadership, their passions, and their talents—talents that have nothing to do with how many heads they can turn. Modesty can become a form of female power. In Rey’s words, this is “the power to be treated as an equal, to be seen as in control, and to be taken seriously. It seems the kind of power [women] are searching for is more attainable when they dress modestly.”

If only it were that easy! Seems to me that the relentless focus on what women are wearing instead of what they’re doing is evidence of how little power women actually have in the world. We’ll know women have real power when their work and their beliefs cannot be dismissed because they do or don’t show belly button at the beach. If laying claim to power and dignity were as simple as wearing a higher neckline, then it wouldn’t have taken the famously modest 19th-century women decades to get the vote. If the exposure of sunlight to your navel really were so disempowering, then Barack Obama wouldn’t be president. The mere fact that women’s modesty is constantly being debated is evidence enough that women aren’t yet equal. If we want women “to be taken seriously,” we should, umm, take them seriously, and stop linking dignity to fabric.