A one-piece swimsuit today means something different than the one Annette Kellerman, a pioneer of women’s swimsuits, wore in the early 1900s. Back then, the expectation was that women would wear a combination of a dress and pantaloons when swimming, which was extremely cumbersome.
When Kellerman first wore a one-piece bathing suit, which did not have arm sleeves and revealed her legs from the knee downwards, it was considered avant-garde for the time. Due to her status as a major actress, her actions piqued the interest of many women who wanted to dress like her. Kellerman would start her own line of women’s swimwear, and it could be argued that this was the first step towards modern women’s swimwear.
Nowadays, one-piece swimsuits are even more revealing, and don’t even get us started on two-piece swimsuits. The bikini was designed by French designer Louis Réard, notably a man. He struggled to find a woman who would model his latest creation. The modeling gig was eventually accepted by former nude dancer Micheline Bernardini who infamously debuted the bikini at the Piscine Molitor on 5 July 1946. Like the one-piece swimsuit before it, the bikini was considered extremely risqué for its time.
Fast-forward to the present time. If you Google pictures of the original one-piece swimsuit and bikini, you probably wouldn’t bat an eye. In fact, they may even look quite prude by our modern standards, which brings us to the main question of this article: why are women’s bathing suits so revealing nowadays? When did we, as a society, agree that women’s swimsuits should get skimpier until they reached the point they are at now?
There are many reasons, including both practical and cultural, that have contributed to these changes. The practical benefits of more revealing swimsuits are that swimsuits made with less fabric will dry faster, allow greater range of motion, and are the most hydrodynamic.From a cultural and social context, there are arguments that “the patriarchy” is objectifying women, that women enjoy the attention they’re getting, and that the portrayal of women in media have desensitized everybody to how revealing bathing suits are.
If you keep reading on, we will delve into each of these reasons in more detail to give you more insight as to why women’s bathing suits have gotten more revealing over the years.
Practical reasons for more revealing swimsuits
Let’s start off by going over the practical reasons for more revealing swimsuits. Clearly the swimsuit of old – a dress over pantaloons – just wasn’t practical. Women were more likely to drown than be able to swim in that getup. Something had to go.
From a practical perspective, if a woman’s bathing suit is more revealing, that means that less fabric was used in its construction. If there is less material overall, then you can expect these benefits:
Faster drying times
If you are spending a day at the beach where you might go in and out of the water and not necessarily want to change out of your swimwear right away, it’s imperative that the swimsuit: a) does not soak up much water in the first place, and b) dries quickly.
Wearing damp swimwear not only feels uncomfortable but can also feel quite chilly when exposed to air.
Furthermore, the faster something dries, the less likely there will be mold growth. Bacteria thrives in moist environments, so even if you change out of your swimwear, unless you are quickly washing it and drying it appropriately, chances are high that mold can start to grow on your swimsuit.
We know from wetsuits and full rashies that a full body swimsuit increases drag. Essentially, water can enter the suit and get trapped, ultimately slowing your movement down.
Now, chances are you won’t be swimming naked, so the middle ground is a swimsuit with less coverage. The less coverage there is, the less spaces there are that can potentially trap water, reducing your overall water resistance.
The result is that you can generate more thrust, improving the effectiveness of each stroke and kick you perform.
More range of motion
In a similar vein, if a swimsuit covers your entire body, then it will restrict your movements. Naturally, how stretchy the material is plays a big part in how freely you can move.
For this reason, you might notice that many swimsuits do not cover the arms and shoulders, allowing you to freely perform the various swim strokes.
Better for tanning
If your entire body is covered up in a full body swimsuit such that only your face, neck, hands, and feet are exposed to sunlight, then once you take the suit off and put on a short sleeve shirt and shorts, you’re going to look really silly when you realize the rest of your body is a different color.
With a more revealing swimsuit, more of your skin can get evenly tanned. Then, when you change back to regular clothes, you won’t have a silly looking farmer’s tan. Life’s much easier when you aren’t stuck wearing pants and long sleeves and you can just wear whatever you want.
Overall greater comfort
We can sum up many of these benefits by simply saying: it feels more comfortable. It doesn’t feel good to be all covered up, especially on a hot and sunny day, doubly so if you will be entering the water.
Now, we understand that some people do want to be covered up for personal or religious reasons. However, there are many women who are okay with showing some skin for practical reasons and cultural ones.
Cultural reasons for skimpier bathing suits
Within the last couple of centuries, the cultural expectations for women were that they needed to be modest and covered up. We can see this by looking at pre-1900s photographs, where the standard women’s swimsuit was literally a dress and pantaloons.
Nowadays, we would scoff at how ridiculously impractical that is for swimming. Yet, for a time, it was the norm. Over the years, the cultural expectations shifted such that now swimsuits are extremely revealing. What are some of the reasons for this shift?
Portrayal of women in the media
In the introductory paragraphs for this article, we mentioned Annette Kellerman, who is often credited as being the pioneer of modern women’s swimsuits. She was a major film star who often appeared in movies with aquatic themes while wearing revealing aquatic outfits.
Most notably, in her 1916 film A Daughter of the Gods, she appeared fully nude which was a major milestone in Hollywood history for its time. Kellerman was a source of inspiration for many women who wanted to buck the trend of wearing a cumbersome dress and pantaloons for swimming and instead wear something more liberating. Back then, one piece swimsuits were groundbreaking for how unencumbered and sexy they were.
One could argue that Kellerman’s audacity to wear such “skimpy” outfits for the time paved the way for women to wear more revealing swimsuits over the years in television and film. Once people started getting used to seeing these new swimsuits, the cultural expectation started to shift, and it was no longer taboo to wear anything other than a dress and pantaloons.
Naturally, the portrayal of women in media has great influence over the female population, which in turn increases demand for more revealing bathing suits, and businesses are all too happy to oblige.
Another reason for the normalization of skimpier swimsuits is that sex sells. Now, this is extremely similar to the point above regarding the media’s portrayal of women, but this topic deserves its own section.
Essentially, a woman showing more skin is perceived as being sexier, and not just to the male gaze. Seeing all of the popularity and attention that actresses were getting from males made it desirable to dress the same way.
Therefore, a woman in a revealing swimsuit is desirable to both sexes – men want to ogle her, women want to be her. People were in a craze buying tickets to movies were getting more sexualized, and women wanted to dress like the actresses in films, which Kellerman capitalized on by starting her own line of swimwear.
Shows like Baywatch aren’t shy about what they are about. There’s a reason why many movies have gratuitous beach and pool party scenes with women wearing the skimpiest bathing suits possible.
Once the movie industry and other businesses realized that having models and actresses wear skimpy bikinis in their advertisements, magazines, and movies earned them a lot of cash, it was game over. You can’t close Pandora’s box once opened. No one is going to shut off a cash fountain.
For the male gaze
There are some people that argue that the shift to skimpier bathing suits is a result of the desires of a patriarchal society which expects women to satisfy men’s desires. After all, some swimsuits are even designed to be partially see-through.
Unfortunately, the patriarchy is quite nebulous and most people haven’t heard of it. However, what the patriarchy is is a social disease: a misogynistic and durable set of beliefs that have subtly warped men’s (and even women’s) minds over the years and changed how men treat women and how women expect to be treated; a self perpetuating cycle that both genders are involved in, even if women get the short end of the stick.
It is basically the belief that between men and women, men are the superior gender, and that women should be subservient to them. Thus, women should serve men, look good for men, defer to men in every way, and in this case, be objectified as a living, breathing sex object for men.
Not every man thinks like this, of course, and it would be very disingenuous to assume this of all men. However, there are enough men who do think like this that it’s a problem, and this pervasive line of thinking can be passed to other men just by living in a culture like that.
For example, while the one-piece swimsuit was made by a woman, what’s worth mentioning is that the bikini was invented by Louis Réard, a man. We mentioned earlier that Micheline Bernardini, a former nude model, modeled the bikini for Réard. How was the reception? From history.com: “The bikini was a hit, especially among men, and Bernardini received some 50,000 fan letters.” It was clear that men were loving the normalization of skimpier bathing suits.
Back to the topic of patriarchy for a bit, I don’t doubt that there are some perverted, twisted men out there in positions of power within influential organizations that could have started a push for more risqué products, advertising, and portrayal of women in the media.
Especially with the #MeToo movement finally outing some of these people in Hollywood, notably film producer Harvey Weinstein, it’s quite clear that some powerful, predatory men have used their authority to abuse vulnerable women.
The patriarchy exists in such a capacity that misogynistic men are aware of it and have an unspoken solidarity with one another, and Weinstein’s very public fall from grace may have shook up the patriarchy a bit, but it’s far from dead.
How much do you think these men care about a woman’s image? They are probably getting a perverse sense of satisfaction knowing that objectifying women is not only fun for them, but also the best business strategy, because that’s just the kind of culture we have these days. They can hide behind plausible deniability by claiming they are just doing what’s best for their business while pushing for skimpier, more revealing swimsuits.
And how are regular men handling this? Many (young) men are probably loving the fact that they can literally meet a girl, add her on Instagram or Facebook, and get immediate access to her beach photos where she can be seen half-naked in a skimpy bikini. Or they can just go to the beach and ogle the myriad of scantily clad women there.
(I’ve literally had guys admit to me this is what they do. Their defense is that all of this is public, and if women didn’t want to be seen that way, then they shouldn’t have worn such skimpy outfits outside). To be fair, these guys make an interesting point which deserves its own section.
Social media giants like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok have made it so that you can reach more people online than you ever could in person.
If you put together a cute outfit, rather than show your friends and family, you can post it on your preferred app and potentially show up in the feeds of thousands of people. It’s intoxicating to see that so many people have liked and commented on your photos.
People started to get obsessed with what other people on social media thought of them. They started to do things specifically intended for their followers on social media hoping to earn their approval. We won’t discuss the negative impact social media has on one’s mental health due to this unhealthy dynamic, but let’s just say it’s not good.
Furthermore, a lot of teenagers and young adults, women especially, have started to get influenced by the positive reception that scantily-clad women were receiving on social media; perhaps they received a few compliments here and there themselves.
Many stars from the music and movie industry have accounts that have millions of followers where they often dress up in skimpy outfits, bathing suits often included.
Then, the rise of influencers – people who have become minor celebrities in their own right due to the large number of followers they have – have given the average person a craving for celebrity themselves. They think – if this influencer can do it, then why can’t I?
So they go out and try to emulate the lifestyles of these influencers and movie stars. A popular thing to do is to go to the beach wearing various revealing swimsuits and take a bunch of photos in various provocative poses and states of undress, hoping to get the perfect one that will rocket them to social media stardom.
Rather than help people make meaningful connections with others from across the world, social media has created a market where people can buy approval, praise and attention from one another, and the currency they use are sexy bikini and lingerie photos.
In fact, you can quite literally buy these kinds of photos and videos with real money thanks to internet content subscription services, another form of social media in its own right, and many adult content producers like to advertise their services on the mainstream social media apps.
Meanwhile, businesses are all too happy to manufacture whatever skimpy bathing suit society wants, movies like Baywatch are dominating the box offices, social media companies are earning record profits selling your personal data and showing you more ads featuring scantily-clad women, and guys are loving all of the hot girls they can see on a daily basis wearing bathing suits that leave nothing to the imagination.
Women have the least to gain from the normalization of more revealing bathing suits. But a sobering thought is that women are partially to blame for their predicament, seeing how willing they are to post photos that objectify themselves on social media just for attention and acknowledgement. It’s an unhealthy way of life that many have accepted as the norm.