Jessica Rey, or How to Turn a History of the Bikini Into Objectification Victim-Blaming

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In a video for what appears to be a TED competitor called Q, one-season Power Rangers actress-turned-designer Jessica Rey offers what amounts to a sales pitch for modesty, and her line of “modest” swimsuits.

The talk starts with an interesting history of the bikini, detailing how women have been kept, at various times, from wearing revealing bathing suits. And gives tidbits of bikini-related slut-shaming. For example, we have 1957 Modern Girl magazine: “No girl with tact or decency would ever wear such a thing.” Also, guards at the beach would kick women off if their suits didn’t cover enough skin. Some conservatives right now is saying, “Seems legit.” I actually experienced this a little myself. At church camp two-piece suits were forbidden, and girls and guys went swimming at different times (I went swimming at no time because no swimwear can prevent me from burning to a crisp).

Rey begins the sales portion with a Princeton study which showed how the male brain reacts to seeing people in different amounts of clothing. Basically, science indicates that some men’s brains actually do literally objectify women when they wear bikinis, but not when they wear “regular” clothing. Objectification of both sexes is a serious problem. It’s treating a person as a thing, depriving them of their dignity. To say someone has dignity, you’re saying they have a right to be valued and receive ethical treatment. Depriving anyone of these rights, for any reason, is and should be unacceptable.

This is surely not the kind of power that women were searching for. The power to be treated as an equal, to be seen as in control and to be taken seriously. It seems the power they’re searching for is more attainable when they dress modestly.

Actually, true equality means being taken seriously and seen as in control on the same basis as men. There are serious consequences to dealing with objectification by asking all women to change how they dress. Rey pretends to address objections by presenting modesty as the solution to objectification by quoting one middle school girl who doesn’t want to dress like a grandma. But the problems with this solution run much deeper than that. Rey says, “Modesty is about revealing our dignity.” The point of dignity is that it’s there, no matter what you’re wearing. All women have a right to be valued and receive ethical treatment, even if they’re *gasp!* naked. Asking women to change what they wear to accommodate men who would otherwise strip them of their dignity says it’s okay to make what women wear the basis upon which they grant them the right to be valued and receive ethical treatment. It’s not. Then, after we make swimwear the basis for dignity, we have to deal with the thorny question of what exactly is modest? Rey holds up Audrey Hepburn as the “inspiration” for her modest swimsuit line. What exactly makes this modest?

hepburn

Same for Taylor Swift, who’s castigated other women for their activities “on the mattress” in her songs. I’m sorry, I can’t hear your slut-shaming over your boobs screaming at me

. swift

Blaming women because some men can’t stop objectifying them sucks enough. But then we tell them that everything rests on a test for which there’s no right answer. And let’s not forget that in so doing we put them in a double bind. If girls cover up too much, they’re frumpy and don’t care. If they wear too little, then they don’t deserve to be treated with respect. Modesty is fine as a personal choice. And it is one way to deal with apparent deficiencies in some men’s brain functioning. But as a long-term strategy, it’s really not good enough. There was a time when forcing a woman to give up her freedom to acquiesce patriarchal demands for modesty was the norm. But I would hope that the intervening years have proven that women are not objects, no matter what they wear. It’s time for modern-day men and women to recognize this and act accordingly.

  • Mr. H

    “because some men can’t stop objectifying them”

    I’m sorry but if a decently attractive woman is wearing revealing swimsuit, my mind goes to a sexual place, whether I like it or not. It is a hardwiring that allow humans to be sexual creatures. Acting on that, however, is what I can control. And I control my actions very well, as should all men.

    “apparent deficiencies in some men’s brain functioning”
    It is difficult to understand but different hormones make some things very different for men and womens’ brains. I have spoken to enough male, female, and transgendered people (whom, IMO, have the most valuable to say based on seeing both sides of the spectrum) to know that man and women tend to think VERY differently in regards to emotion and sexuality.

    I agree with the rest of what you had to say, and this is somewhat unrelated, but you seem to have misconceptions about how a man’s brain works and how important the difference in estrogen and testosterone are in peoples’ thinking process.

    • Athena

      In regards to your first paragraph:

      As a woman, when I see a decently attractive man wearing a swimsuit, my mind also goes to a sexual place. The difference is that I don’t think my lady-boner has any effect on a man’s worth. I still treat him like a human being.

      Objectification doesn’t mean not being attracted to someone; objectification is demoting a person from human being to sexual object. And I think that CAN be helped.

      So, I see your point, and I politely disagree. :)

      • Kat

        Athena,

        Thinking about someone sexually, whether you like it or not, is going to change the way you act towards them. If objectification means cat-calling and vulgar verbal abuse, yes, it is very easy to control that.

        However, you are asking all people everywhere to change their innate ATTITUDE. It’s easy to choose not to perform a particular action, but over time the attitude of objectification means much more than this, and unfortunately is MUCH harder to change.

        • Guest

          I just can’t believe how naive and selfish we women are for asking men to change the very nature of their being–attitudes that manifest subtly over time as opposed to actions–when women can simply choose to dress more modestly if they don’t want to be objectified.

          I would argue that it’s exactly as unjust for women take advantage of men’s natural instincts as it is for men not to completely control their natural instincts. Women often use their bodies to take advantage of men (I know a lower cut shirt will get me a lower price at garage sales). Even if it is as subconscious as men’s objectification of women, how is it any different? Shouldn’t we expect women to treat men better?

          Even if men “CAN” control this attitude, it is much more difficult than controlling a wardrobe, and women DEFINITELY CAN control that, and honestly, it’s not fair that men are forced to have hot bodies shoved in their faces in public and expected to act against their nature. Women can choose who to show their bodies to; men can’t choose what bodies they see if they are in public.

          The simplest solution is usually the best: if objectification bothers you, don’t wear those clothes. I understand that we *shouldn’t* have to, but what of the women who WANT to be objectified? Have they no say? While you’re busy expecting the entire male world to change, other women are going the easier route: using objectification to their advantage or dressing modestly.

          • Bethany Grace Smith

            I can’t believe how naive and selfish anyone is for thinking that men are primal beasts who, because they find a woman attracted, must automatically disrespect her. As a woman, it’s fine if you’re attracted to me. That’s, frankly, none of my business. Just treat me like a human being, worthy of basic respect and human rights. Those things shouldn’t be tied into what I’m wearing.

          • MLG

            There’s no excuse for barbarianism. I think without women in the world, there would be no morality. However, what Bethany just wrote….That’s a bit ignorant. Every bit of clothing we put on is basically one degree away from being naked. Imagination is one of the most powerful things we possess. Wear a cardboard box for the computer generated emotion youre speaking of. For the rest of humanity, dress like you care what we see, because we will see it and in many ways, be moved….if you’re only dressing for yourself, that’s where naivety jumps in. Be part of the nobility that is, restraint. The world is watching. Be an example we can all be proud of. Influence a situation and those around you. That’s empowering and ANTI-objectification.

      • Andrea Castillo

        “The difference is that I don’t think my lady-boner has any effect on a man’s worth. I still treat him like a human being.”

        I saw nothing in Mr. H’s comment that implied that his sexual thoughts “[had] any affect on a [woman's] worth” or didn’t “treat [her] like a human being.” Why do you assume this?

        • Erin

          Nor did I, but I think that’s the point (if not Athena’s, then mine). His mind goes to a sexual place; that’s fine. But if the woman walked over and said, “Hi. I’m Heather. Nice to meet you,” and he treated her any differently than he would a guy, that’s where he’d possibly be objectifying her.

      • cosmopolite

        Women can degrade and demean a man in other ways than being turned on by anatomy and letting their good manners go. Women can mock his abilities as a provider, deny his intelligence, insist that his troubles are of his own making when he is in fact a victim of social and economic forces he cannot control.

  • Andrea Castillo

    “Objectification of both sexes is a serious problem. It’s treating a person as a thing, depriving them of their dignity.”

    This is an interesting thought. Does objectification, by definition, rob someone of their dignity? I imagine that some people who are “objectified” find dignity in their actions, even if others think they don’t. And of course many people don’t feel dignity when they are objectified. But I’m not sure that it’s so cut and dry, as there is surely power in being an icon. The question is of trade-offs: Does the power conferred through objectification outweigh the psychological and social costs of being a symbol?

    I think this gets to some of what you’re saying: Telling a woman that she should cover up to feel “dignified” implies that there can be no dignity in sexual objectification. For some women, this is probably true. But for others, sexualization is strength. I imagine that a good part of this push towards modesty is driven by the first type of woman.

    • Kat

      The argument for dignity relies on the idea that dignity is universally revered. Even if we all had the same definition of dignity, many girls could care less about it.

      The objectified people you mentioned who find dignity in their actions probably don’t; they just have completely different standards and may not understand others’ concept of dignity, or why dignity would be a virtue.

      • Andrea Castillo

        That’s one possibility. I think you’re right that some objectified persons simply might not give two hoots about dignity.

        There are two ways we can think about dignity. One is communal. “Dignity” is conferred through society’s perception of its presence. Under this conception of dignity, attitudes and articles like the above would certainly arbitrate who can or cannot have dignity.

        Another understanding of dignity is personal. Even if the world thinks you have none, you still manage to find fulfillment and peace in your life. Granted, this kind of dignity is probably harder to maintain, as society’s perceptions are certainly still an input in this conception of dignity.

        I think it’s entirely possible that a person can be “objectified” by society’s standards and still find dignity in their actions. I think it’s a little condescending to act like they can’t. Of course, the lines are understandably blurred as many people in these situations did not make a euvoluntary choice. Still, I’m hesitant to make sweeping external judgments about others’ (particularly women’s) choices when they themselves have not voiced a problem..

    • Erin

      Maybe we need a consistent definition of what objectification is. I never considered a women choosing to be a sex symbol or capitalizing on her sexuality to be objectified. For me, the term was always equated with denying a person’s autonomy–and by proxy, dignity– which can be dangerous for obvious reasons.

      If a person can voluntarily “objectify” themselves, I would argue they are not being objectified because they can’t be the subject and the object in the same breath.

      • ollygollymolly

        This.

  • cosmopolite

    I have read women reason in the above fashion for at least 30, and maybe 40, years. And the logical outcome is that indecent exposure should not apply to adult women. The First World will reach that point before the end of this century. The 20th century took us from Victorian swim wear with stockings, making it impossible for a woman to be a serious swimmer, to the string bikini in the USA and to topless in continental Europe. The 21st century will take us to full naked in hot weather.

    I submit that being ashamed of one’s erogenous zones is a social construct, and not a neurological given, especially given how daughters are raised nowadays. Female modesty is grounded in women’s of male violence and lechery. More and more women will reject letting bad male behaviour and crassly immature male attitudes determine how they look when enjoying hot weather. The compromise will be that women over a certain age can wear as little as they want, as long as they cannot be seen by passing motorists and the like. I accept local option requiring that certain things remain under cloth. I live in a country having mile upon mile of deserted beaches. To be naked on such beaches is not an invitation to an orgy.

  • Cat

    The issue I have with this article is I didn’t get that vibe from this video. I felt she was presenting another OPTION for women, not telling women they HAVE to dress modestly in response to objectifation. But the reality is, one piece swimsuits are frowned upon, deamed unfashionable, and largely made available only as a solution to hiding problem areas instead of as a fashion choice. For the same reason I currently wear a head scarf, I find her point to be more that women deserve OPTIONS and greater emphasis needs to be placed on this alternative. It’s not slut shaming to give women the choice to dress modestly and have it received on the same level as a bikini.

    • cosmopolite

      Where I live, young unmarried women wear bikinis (but not my daughters), and older women in stable relationships wear one piece, especially after age 35 or so. It is obvious that wearing short skirts, short shorts and string bikinis is how today’s young women advertise their availability. This need to “advertise” fades when they have a partner.

      • ollygollymolly

        Where the heck do you live? Where I live people wear what they feel comfortable in no matter how old they are. There are 15 year olds in one-pieces and 50 year olds in bikinis.

  • Servaas Hofmeyr

    To bluntly say “women must be able to walk around near naked or strike various sexual poses and still be treated with dignity” is true from the view that humans are inherently sacred by design but a somewhat narrow obligation placed on a society built on the sexualisation of its people. Women must also realise that by dressing in certain ways they are communicating a specific message within their cultural narrative, often one of not much self-respect or insecurity. Further, Rey presents an alternative for those girls who associate with what she is saying, those who do feel uncomfortable dressing in ways the media suggests they ‘ought’ to dress, while experiencing discomfort, realising they are objectifying themselves and turning themselves into eye candy. They now have an option to go for the modest/more covered alternative.

    • ollygollymolly

      The option to wear a one-piece or fully-covering two-piece never went away though.

  • Jess C Boowho

    Personally I would rather both men and woman be modest. I think this article misses the mark.

    There is a deference between telling woman that what they wear will effect how their treated Vs. “allowing” men to “get away” with altering how we act based on their objectifying of us. We don’t have to accept it’s ok that the male brain may do this, but it’s only common sense to realize that it just may be our reality. So acknowledging that, woman can make an informed choice on how to present themselves so they have the power to achieve what their aiming for.

    But it’s true that the definition of modesty changes based on the culture, it would be interesting if they studied the male brain of one of those tribes where the woman don’t wear tops and only have small coverings for their front section. Perhaps since their not taught that breast are off limits but for sexual gratification their brains don’t perceive them as such. Then if that’s the case men objectifying woman is probably a education/culture influence.

    • ollygollymolly

      I mentioned the fact that there are places where boobs aren’t covered during an argument with a christian male and he said, “We can’t fault cultures that haven’t had access to the Bible yet”. Because those cultures don’t objectify boobs like ours does? Because that’s such a bad thing?
      ugh. PEOPLE.

  • the objectifier

    Why is objectification a bad thing? Let’s All drop The BS. First, TED conferences are hypocritical. This reminds me of one where a beautiful woman gave a presentation about the art of seduction. Yes, using your sexual charm to get what you want.

    Now the larger point is men and women objectify eachother. When you have carnal thoughts about someone you are sexually attracted to that is the clearest method of creating that object in your mind. I believe that the first level of attraction is objectification because our evolutionary nature requires Us to discriminate and weed out lessor suitors. And there is a value is this. If we never objectify others we can’t weed out the ones who are bad for us.

    And why us there this assumption that women are so above this? This is compete nonsense. Women objectify men constantly. When she makes up her mind as to the possibility of him being a potential suitor she must reduce him to a mere object just as a man reduces a woman to an object.

    Both sexes seek to be objectified by the other. If women didn’t seek this they would not wear makeup creating the illusion of youth and attraction, they wouldn’t wear clothing that is revealing ect but they do these because they seek a man’s reptile brain to reduce them to that state.

    I objectify women. They objectify me. And thank goodness we actually need more of this. The opposite train of thought would be something along the lines of “love everyone” which Is atrocious and reduces the quality of love. So please next time you stare at the broadness of a man’s shoulders donot kid yourself he is your object for that moment.