Against Old Time Bathing Suits

by Conor Friedersdorf

Paula Marantz Cohen says that we should return to the bathing costumes of the 1910s:

It’s not about vanity; it’s about modesty. Not about looking fat but about being naked.

Even as a child, I understood this. As I ran under the sprinkler in my electric orange two-piece, I knew that it was one thing for me, with my hairless legs and flat chest, to wear such a scanty, silly thing, and quite another for my neighbor with her gargantuan boobs, my piano teacher with her varicose veins, and my dentist with his protuberant beer belly to do the same. Even my own parents relatively attractive, fit people were an embarrassment. I could see that while some grownups looked really bad in bathing suits, all grownups looked unseemly. Here, I vaguely intuited, was another example of adult hypocrisy. Breasts and penises, subject to so much discretion under normal circumstances, were somehow allowed to be baldly delineated in the vicinity of sand and sun.

Oh please. If by "unseemly" the author means that adults in bathing suits are transgressing against accepted standards, she is obviously wrong, and if she means something more -- that the human body is inherently shameful, and needs to be more thoroughly covered -- her argument is scarcely better. Humanity's aesthetic preferences about weight and body type are variable as a matter of historical record. Social norms about nudity vary widely across time and culture. The fact that Americans embrace the two piece bikini, Europeans sunbathe topless without a fuss, and Saudi Arabia cloaks its women in the most modest garb imaginable refutes the notion that "modesty" is the marker of a healthy society.

The author goes on:

I should note that swimming is not the only activity whose outfits I find unseemly. I feel the same way about football and ballet. Different as these two activities are, they share an X-rated taste in costume. When I go to the ballet do I really want to see the bulging codpieces of all those Nureyev wannabes? When I watch the Super Bowl, do I want to stare at so many well-muscled butts? It’s not that I’m a prude (well, maybe I am), it’s just that when I watch ballet and football, I don’t want to be schooled in the fine points of male anatomy. It’s distracting.

Whether it be Michelangelo's David, Kathy Ireland on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the tone of Serena Williams' muscles, Michael Phelps tensed on the starting block, or male and female ballet dancers showing off their elegant lines, the appropriate reaction is pleasure at the beauty of the human form -- and I suspect the enlightened, civilized plateau we ought to aspire toward is seeing shades of the same beauty in the tanned 70-year-old naked woman on an Italian beach or the pot-bellied veteran fishing off a pier in August.

I'll never get there completely. Heaven forbid the DMV or the Manhattan bound F Train ever goes clothing optional. But athletes in tight costumes and naked folks on beaches? That's easy. Often it's even beautiful.