The Great Swimsuit Debate...


My wandering, indecisive 2-cents on the Great Swimsuit Debate:

It's the middle of a cold Winter; the perfect time to (more-or-less) objectively discuss the proper attire for plunging into a refreshingly cool pool or lake. Our good sense is not dulled by the oppressive August heat. Nor are we feeling overcome with negative emotion over the string bikini walking down the middle of the neighborhood in front of our living room window and 12-year old son.  So, let's take the plunge...

This really is a tough conversation to have. The Church has not definitively spoken on the details of female swim apparel and the results of individual discernment seem to vary broadly. Additionally, the individual response of some people (ahem...men) to women in swim apparel also seems to vary. I think heavily on this topic at least once a year, generally as I am about to step into my own bathing suit for the first swim of the season. It's really an unpleasant experience. I have worn many different kinds of suits in my lifetime and have not felt lovely or properly covered in any one of them.

Reading some recent blog posts on this topic has me, once again, weighing swimsuit options. My particular train of thought has centered on "modest" swimsuits. I have seen countless photos of what different people consider to be modest and my immediate and personal thought each time is: "3 or 4 extra inches of material does not make that thing modest." Anything that is to be worn in public that reveals the most minute details of the shape and dimensions of all parts of my body is difficult for me. That includes most "modest" swimsuits. Old-fashioned swimsuits (say, from the 1930's) are frequently purported to be more modest. I challenge you to do a quick google search from that decade and tell me that the swimsuits you see are much more modest than a full-coverage modern suit. They are all very tight and revealing. And the female models certainly don't look like they think they're being modest. I also disagree that attaching a teeny tiny and/or hip-hugging skirt adds substantially to efforts at modesty.

I've also seen modest swim wear that is designed to cover more like a shorty wet suit with a tunic. I agree that these suits do cover much more. The shorts and t-shirts that most Americans wear are more revealing than these bathing suits. But most of the families who wear these suits also regularly dress with a great deal more coverage than other families.  That means even wearing this swim wear  is a compromise with what they would normally consider to be modest apparel. I have also heard the argument that dressing so differently at the pool will only cause more unwanted attention to be drawn from onlookers since the suits will be seen as so "strange."

So, modesty in dress is relative. Or is it? This is a huge can of worms. I only intend to open it a tiny bit.

To have this discussion at all, one must begin with the fundamental question when dealing with the modest swimming issue:

Is it permissible for a woman to swim in public?

Last I checked, there was no Church prohibition on the activity of swimming for males or for females. So, we don't have a definitive 'yes' but there's not a 'no' either. Most of us have been swimming since we were tiny tots and are very comfortable in the water and around other swimmers. The issue has been around long enough to be officially addressed but none has been forthcoming. I think it is safe to assume that this is an area for personal discernment.

If we accept that swimming itself is permissible, we now have to deal with the details of when, where, how, and with what kind of covering. If I had 5 hours I could write on all of those categories; not today.

What should we wear?
When I was 9 years old I was extremely self-conscious and embarrassed of my body. I was not overweight but held my tummy to a Barbie doll standard (which I could not meet) and wore extremely loose clothing as a method of covering up what I considered to be a problem. I liked t-shirts to my knees. I was not interested in being attractive. I was interested in hiding. At the beginning of the swim season I walked to the corner box store with a friend to buy swim suits. She tried on string bikinis and I looked for the baggiest thing I could find. She frowned at my reflection. "It sags." "Yes. I know." What I discovered in the pool the next day, however, was very discouraging: When you add water to a swim suit, even a baggy one that resembles a teal potato sack, it sticks to you. It is no longer baggy and conceals absolutely nothing. Please pass my towel.

As I grew a little older (and more...curvy), I gave up the attempt to hide and embraced the effort to attract. I won't scandalize you with the pictures but my husband loves them. Enough said.

Add a few more years and I began to buy suits to flatter (I do think we owe our husbands the effort of maintaining a pleasant appearance). Support in the right areas was good. I mean, as long as it's all got to be out in the open we might as well keep it together as best we can, right?  "Granny" suits were just plain ugly. Just saggy, drab versions of the 1930's suits. Not really covering, supporting or flattering well. Athletic suits worked well; supportive material with no teeny strings.

That brings us to today where you will find me struggling with my extreme dislike of the feel and fit of pretty much all suits that are age-appropriate. They stick so closely that I feel as naked as a baby. My legs are still bare. And most one-piece suits have very little...support. I prefer an athletic cut two-piece (similar to a sports bra fit) for comfort and support but I struggle with the modesty issue (bare middle) and a tummy that has carried 6 babies. I don't actually feel more modest in the one-piece but must acknowledge that the skin baring is an issue objectively speaking.

I do think that if it is immodest/immoral to wear an athletic cut two-piece, then it is probably immodest/immoral to wear a sticky one-piece or tankini. Our shoulders, legs and backs are still bare. You can see belly buttons and rear ends defined with both. I think if the logic is followed through with regard to modern swim apparel, we would have to agree that almost every piece of swimwear for sale today is immodest.

An attractive woman at the pool is likely going to present a challenge to some males regardless of what kind of suit she is wearing. People will still look to see what they can see. If they can't see enough, they'll imagine it. Should we leave swimming to the guys? Do we cover ourselves to our ankles? Knees? Mid-thigh? Is a soaking wet, clingy t-shirt really a good alternative? Should we just throw in the towel and buy burkas?

What to do?

Personally, I am still undecided on the issue. I enjoy swimming for leisure and exercise. It is such a delight to swim with my family in the Summertime. I still feel utterly naked and unattractive in all kinds of suits. I do swim in mixed company and find it sometimes necessary but embarrassing. And I'm convinced that swim apparel (within reason) has less to do with modesty at the pool than deportment and prudence.

I have been treated with disrespect and been made to feel ashamed by men while I was wearing turtlenecks and ankle length skirts. I have also been treated with dignity by men in spite of my own lapses in judgement with regard to wardrobe. I'm not putting the responsibility all on men. But let's acknowledge that dressing with modesty is not not an exact science and controlling another's response to our attire is largely beyond our control. I don't care to have my legs exposed at either the 1930's swimsuit height or the 2000's. People are going to look. Some people may not like what they see. Some are going to be tempted no matter what.

This is the point where I throw up my hands in frustration. I have no idea. I will buy a suit again this year. And put it on. And wear my towel until the last possible second. And leave the towel behind in order to save a toddler from falling into the pool. And be embarrassed to varying degrees. I'll have a wonderful time swimming with my family. My husband will think I'm lovely no matter what. And I'll feel a wonderful sense of relief when I get to pack that stretchy thing away for the next 9 months. Hoorah for living in the Northeast!
Posted on March 6, 2010 and filed under "modest swimming".