On Bras, Bathing Suits, and Basic Human Rights

One of my fondest imaginings of my mother, Susanna, is of her marching down the high street in a pair of clunky Dr. Martin boots and a whimsy floral dress, with her yellow hair wild down her back. Another story I’ve been told is how she once dyed her hair one-half red, one-half green when she was around fifteen. As I discovered my independent sense of style during my teenage years, I was inspired on a foundation level by my mother’s don’t-give-a-damn attitude. I chose not to give a damn either, and despite the natural self-consciousness of being a young person, especially having crushes and relationships, I wore things that made me feel the happiest I could be in my own body and communicated exactly who I felt I was. I didn’t listen to pressure and actually looked like the odd one out a lot of the time.

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I still feel the pressure, though: the feeling of needing to justify your choices. I have overheard, read and participated in discussions about women’s fashion choices for years: what is socially acceptable or unacceptable; exactly how to dress to impress and how tedious it is to see ‘who wore it best?’ features in magazines. My own opinion has always been that woman should wear what a woman wants to wear, and it is not indicative of her capacity to be intelligent, kind, humble, courageous or loving. And yet, I’ll admit, there is one argument I have not been able to respond to until recently: that a woman wearing a bikini is no different to her wearing a bra and knickers at home. As a woman who enjoys good quality underwear and has worn a bikini in the garden and on holiday, I was stumped by this statement. “Of course they’re different” was my instinctive response, but I couldn’t justify why. It was strangely suffocating to hear that women don’t need to be shy about being caught in their bra and knickers mid-dressing, because it’s exactly the same amount of material as a bikini. Another argument was that it was appropriate for a woman to be seen in public while essentially wearing the same thing as their underwear.

These arguments felt like another way to own women’s bodies, restrict women’s freedom of choice in their appearance and add more rules to the over growing list of society’s expectations. Despite my discomfort with these arguments, I felt like I couldn’t explain why there was a difference between a bikini and underwear. There just was. I felt like I was losing the argument and couldn’t defend myself as a woman. It was like a real need but apparently unsolvable, until now.

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While browsing Twitter – which is a good platform for bite-size responses to bigger issues – I found the answer, or at least, the most satisfying answer I’d come across so far. At the root of the difference between a bikini and underwear is a woman’s consent to be seen, or not seen, in what she wears. If a woman is wearing a bikini at the beach or anywhere that’s in the public eye, she is effectively consenting to being seen in that amount of clothing. When she is wearing underwear privately beneath her clothes, she is not consenting to being seen in it.

To broaden the idea of consent, it is important to consider a woman’s autonomy with her body, while also considering how context affects what she chooses to wear. When a woman is dressing or undressing her body she is usually concentrating on the outer garments. A bra and knickers serve purposes of hygiene and comfort, and are typically concealed once the woman is fully dressed. Wearing them contributes to a woman’s sense of self-sufficiency, and therefore they fall within the sphere of practicality, privacy, and autonomy with her body. A bikini is the same but has the added feature of being water and sun-suitable, so that women can enjoy the outdoors while still feeling hygienic and comfortable. In another context, a woman may choose to wear specifically attractive underwear to boost her sense of sexuality, or to enjoy sexual activities with someone else. Shops such as Ann Summers or Victoria’s Secret often concentrate on the aesthetic appeal of underwear for sex or boosted sexuality. It is therefore plausible to see why a bikini – especially a beautiful one – might be seen with sexual connotations. Indeed, what is often the case is that ‘ordinary’ underwear is hidden in the depths of M&S or other big clothing shops and typically only sought by women who need them, while ‘sexy’ underwear is often in shop windows for all to see. Therefore, it is understandable that a man, for instance, would see a bikini on the beach and immediately associate it with underwear of a sexual context. Undeniably, what does regularly happen is that women will choose to wear a bikini because they want to look sexy in one. “Why are they different, then?” is the question. “Why is she hiding when I catch her getting dressed?”

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Because the key word is ‘want’. When a woman wants to wear ‘sexy’ underwear to share an experience with another person, she’s consenting to being seen in it. When she wants to wear a bikini in public, she’s consenting to being seen in it. When she’s spotted in her daily underwear while getting dressed, she’s probably not consenting to being seen in it. You’ll be able to tell by the way she quickly covers up or dashes out of sight.

Growing up and feeling my way through the change from being a child to being a teenager, the foundations of my sense of identity lay in what I wore. Thinking about my mum’s free spirit and unbelievable self-confidence still cushions my insecurities today, and I take inspiration from her. She consented to be seen in her own sense of style because she had such a strong sense of autonomy with her body. I was motivated by this as a teenager, I bought my first leather-style jacket when I was fourteen even though no one else was wearing one; I had furry Eskimo boots for walking in the snow during our country winters. I copied my mum’s hair experimenting, I got a perm when I was sixteen. I remember friends at school laughing at my individual style, but I also remember being really happy and feeling a sense of fulfillment in having autonomy with my self. This is still the case today, at twenty-two. You’ll typically find me in black leggings rather than jeans and on casual days and an array comfortable loungewear. Some people call my loungewear “outdoor pyjamas” while others can’t wait to find out where I got it from so they can look just as cool. Whatever I wear, I wear it to suit my tastes of the day and to make myself feel comfortable and sexy. My style is my own, as should every woman’s be. I consent to be seen in it.

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