Like any young woman living in southern California, Jessica Rey, a graduate student at Loyola Marymount, wanted a swimsuit or two as part of her wardrobe. But she couldn't find one that suited her. She wasn't comfortable wearing a string bikini, but everything else in the stores looked like something her grandmother might wear. So being smart and industrious, she designed one for herself. Right away, other women started asking where they could get one like it. Enterprising MBA student that she was, she put two and two together, and in 2008, Rey Swimwear opened for business. Rey swimsuits have a classic, vintage look. Jessica's tagline is, "Who says it has to be itsy bitsy?"
In addition to managing her growing business, Jessica, a lifelong Catholic, also speaks on chasteness and modesty. In June 2013, she gave a genteel, ten-minute talk called "The Evolution of the Swimsuit" that set off a verbal firestorm in the blogosphere.
She started off with a little history. The first bikini was designed in 1946 by Louis Réard, who worked in his mother's lingerie shop. He named it after Bikini Atoll, the site of post-World War II nuclear bomb testing, because he expected an explosive reaction from the public. He had to hire a stripper because no French model would debut it for him. Later, in the wake of the 1960s' sexual revolution, "liberated" feminists began casting the bikini as symbolic of "the power of women." The reframing stuck, and in 2003, a New York Times reporter called it "the millennial equivalent of the power suit."
Jessica then related the results of a 2009 neural imaging study conducted on male students at Princeton University that had turned up some interesting results relevant to women's choices in fashion. "Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tools, such as screwdrivers and hammers, lit up." Furthermore, she said, some men showed "zero brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that lights up when one ponders another person's thoughts, feelings, and intentions."
This was not what the researchers had expected. One professor said, "It's as if they're reacting to these women as if they are not fully human," as if they were "objects, not people." This study, together with a related one on men's language choices after seeing the images, led analysts at National Geographic to conclude that bikinis "really do inspire men to see [women] as objects"—as things to be used, rather than persons to connect with.
This turns the notion of the bikini as a "power suit" entirely on its head. If these findings are to be believed, the bikini is a profound tool of disempowerment. Jessica's point, therefore, was this: If a woman wants to be taken seriously—as a valuable, fully human person rather than an object—she would do better to dress more modestly. She concluded by emphasizing the dignity and beauty of women. "We were made beautiful in His image and likeness," she said. "How will you use your beauty?"
Réard had predicted the bikini itself would incite an explosion, but who would have predicted explosive blowback from a benign discussion of modesty?
Some heard everything Jessica said through the interpretive lens of male oppression. Lucy Vernasco, writing for Ms. blog, said that a woman "should never feel compelled to cover her body because of shame or how others will perceive her if she wears a bikini. . . . Rey is harking back to a time of flagrant gender inequality . . . that attitude can support rape culture."
Cathy Reisenwitz, of the website Sex and the State, took Rey to task in a scattershot screed she called, "How to Turn a History of the Bikini into Objectification Victim-Blaming." "There are serious consequences to dealing with objectification by asking all women to change how they dress," she wrote in boldface, apparently the power-font of overly sensitive feminists without a good argument. "All women have a right to be valued and receive ethical treatment, even if they're *gasp!* naked," she insisted (thankfully, back in normal font).
And "rah," a "trained social scientist PhD" writing at the website Feminist Mormon Housewives, sounded off with, "the photos themselves did not create the sexism, they simply provided a vehicle for measuring the affects [sic] of the sexism that was already there!" Her PhD conclusion (after warning readers of "academic-ese ahead"): "It is only the hostile sexist men pigs that objectify women in bikinis." (Feel smarter now?)
Some criticized the methods of the neural imaging study. Others mixed haphazard censure with backhanded ad hominems. "First of all, 'modesty' is, by its nature, a societal construct. . . . The dress the presenter is wearing would be considered quite immodest in many cultures," commented Erin Rierson, who went on to criticize Jessica's shoes, which "have been shown in multiple studies to do physical damage to women, and primarily exist due to their perceived sex appeal."
Sadly, the response from a male theology and ethics student was scarcely better. Matthew Tuininga of the Christian in America blog found "highly problematic Rey's assumption that men are mere machines," and criticized her for "imagining that we can find a place from which to be dogmatic" and thereby introducing "the ugly specter of legalism."
Advocating for a little moderation in women's fashion supports rape? Isn't it ironic how these feminists—who purport to be all about a woman's empowerment and freedom to chart her own course apart from constraints others might impose on her—are so vexed as to throw inane hissy fits over one woman who actually exemplifies those qualities? Is there a rational thought to be found in the Ms. mindset?
Their criticisms were completely ungrounded. "The Evolution of the Swimsuit" relayed some factual information and then made a reasoned, persuasive case, grounded in the theology of creation, for modest dress. Rey didn't tell anyone what to wear or not wear. There was no mention of shame. But "rules" and "shame" were what they heard. Now, why might that be?
Whenever we see emotional explosions in reaction to something a speaker did not say, we can be pretty sure there's a deeper issue at play. Since evolutionary psychologists weighed in on the Princeton study (male depersonalization of women is "a byproduct of human evolution"), I'll venture a hypothesis as to what's going on with the irate feminists.
Perhaps what they were reacting against was the voice of their own conscience. The unstated foundation for Jessica's message had to do with basic sexual boundaries. There was something good, right, and true driving what she said. And they knew it. But because they've rejected wholesale the concept of any overarching sexual ethic, a confused reaction arose, ironically both out of the lack of boundaries and against any hint of those very boundaries that are lacking. I doubt this is what Réard expected; his bikini was just a tool. The sexual revolution was a bomb. And this emotional chaos is residual fallout.
The Smithsonian Institute reports that, despite previous devastation, the coral reefs on Bikini Atoll are thriving. Biologists call this resilience. Similarly, despite the devastation wrought by societal repudiation of sexual boundaries, many women appear to be recovering a sense of dignity in modest dress. Jessica's entire inventory sold out within two weeks of her talk, and Rey Swimwear is thriving.
Happily married, and now a mother of two and owner of a growing business, Jessica continues to gracefully chart her own course. Only itsy bitsy minds cast aspersions on success like that. •
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