ARTS & CULTURE | The Itsy Bitsy Bikini and International Women’s Day

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Photo: Kaleo and I visiting ohana in Hawaii, Autumn 2013. Photo: Kristi Scharsch

By Maggie Pyper — 

I recently watched a presentation by fashion entrepreneur (and former White Power Ranger) Jessica Rey about the bikini, and how it affects men’s brains. Rey quoted a Princeton study to suggest men can’t help but objectify women wearing bikinis. I was shocked. Apparently, when a man looks at a scantily-clad woman, the region of the brain associated with tool use is activated, suggesting that women are perceived as something to use. To counteract this, Rey argues, we (women) need to don more modest attire.

Well, that just didn’t sit right with the feminist in me, and I was definitely a little angry with Ms. Rey for shaming me out of my bikini. After doing a bit of research, I realized that I got into this debate a little late in the game—this video is about two years old, and Rey’s representation of the study is more than a tad skewed. In her defense she is not the only one to sensationalize the results.

National Geographic does the same. The study was actually intended to examine the relationship between participants’ pre-existing level of sexism, and neural activity upon exposure to images of sexualized women (as well as other images).

Importantly, the study showed women were more likely to be perceived as objects among men in whom “hostile sexism” was already present; the women’s attire was secondary. Rey’s misrepresentation of the study served her purposes well though, upselling her own line of swimsuits, with the tag line “Who says it has to be itsy bitsy?” The swimsuits are really quite adorable, and I might actually think of buying one if I wasn’t so upset with her for making me feel like I am inviting men to treat me like an object because I like my two-piece swimsuit and feel beautiful when I wear it.

Rey’s misreading of the Princeton study did, however, give me reason to pause. March 8 is fast approaching, and is a day I keep prodigious track of, in part because I have to buy a birthday present and procure a cake, and because it is International Women’s Day (IWD).

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My six-months-pregnant bikini body. Photo: Kaiulani Pyper

IWD has been officially celebrated on March 8 since 1975, but it has roots in the suffrage movement, with the first International Day celebrated in 1911. As women’s suffrage spread, so too did adoption of IWD, and it has since become a global day with commemoration events taking place in more than 100 countries. It is a day to honor the work of suffragettes, to celebrate the acts of courage and determination of women from all walks of life, and a day to remind us of inequities still to be redressed.

To me, the acts of courage I saw recently, are words coming from women who are speaking out against the “hostile sexist” attitudes that are present in our society which enable the objectification of women. The idea, as Rey incorrectly implies, that men just can’t help themselves when they see a woman in a bikini so therefore we must change how we dress, is far too simplistic. Changing from my favourite bikini into a one-piece bathing suit is not going to stop someone from objectifying me, nor is it going to make the sexist attitudes that enable objectification disappear. The attitude needs to be addressed. I have no recipe for this. I only know that it will take intense dedication, determination, humility, and love.

 

Maggie Pyper is grateful to be present each day with her partner, son, and everyone else who shares this amazing world we call home.

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