A couple of years ago Sam had a change of heart about gym dress codes at the University gym. In “Sam changes her mind about gyms and dress codes,” she explained how she initially thought that if the dress code is gender neutral and gender neutrally applied (e.g. everyone has to wear proper footwear or everyone has to wear a shirt), then there was no problem. But that led to a huge outcry from readers, who basically objected to any dress code in a gym, particularly when the reason is to make others feel more comfortable.
The gym dress code issue came up again when a student at the University of Prince Edward Island wore a short top (I wouldn’t even call it a crop top) that didn’t quite reach the top of her leggings, thus exposing a little bit of midriff. The staff at the gym told her it violated the code — no sports bras or crop tops. When she drilled down about the reasons for the code, it came down to this: they are too distracting because they show abs and cleavage. The staff said they were trying to “find a happy medium where girls can still work out with men” (don’t get me started on referring to the women as “girls” and the men as “men”).
If this is the rationale, then we can file it in the same folder as all the other advice we give women to protect themselves from assault and harassment — cover up, don’t walk alone after dark, don’t go in the elevator alone with a man/men, take your drink with you when you use the bathroom at a club or bar…
Why can the women not “still work out with the men” if wearing crop tops? It has zero to do with the women. They’re just there doing their thing with body confidence, wearing a thing that’s designed for working out. So it’s a terrible reason. And if that’s the reason for a dress code, then definitely there should be no dress code.
I think there may be some legitimate reasons for some restrictions — shoes, for example. And I can even think of some gender neutral reasons for wanting everyone to wear a shirt — sweat on the equipment, for example. What I doubt, however, is that those reasons will be gender neutrally applied. Lingering in the background is this idea that women’s bodies should be covered because if they’re not, straight men will be distracted and unable not to sexualize them.
This assumption does both men and women a disservice. My best example of a fitness community where many people wear as little as possible and in my experience no one sexualizes the others in the room (or if they do, they keep it totally to themselves) is hot yoga. Women wear tiny shorts and crop tops. Men wear shorts and frequently go topless. And it’s just fine.
Do you think it’s out of line for gyms etc. to have dress codes?
We’re long known to be all messed up about bodies and nudity here in North America. But even as a teen backpacking through Europe I grasped that sense of freedom and body positivity on the topless and nude beaches from France and Switzerland to the Greek Islands. Bodies of all shapes and sizes. Men and women in skimpy bikini bottoms or naked. It wasn’t “for adults only.” It wasn’t sexualized. It rarely (though not entirely never) involved leering and creepiness. It was just an accepted way to be at the beach or poolside or in the sauna.
Flash forward to 2018. More and more people are covering up. The Economnist article “Naked Europe Covers Up,” says: “In recent years, commentators across the continent have remarked on a new prudishness.”
And while some would blame it on immigration, there appear to deeper reasons than cultural difference in attitudes about nudity. According to the article:
The rise of social media has made young people more body-conscious, reluctant to display anything less than perfect abs. Smartphones with cameras make risqué undress riskier. The #MeToo movement has forced a reassessment of even fully clothed interactions between the sexes, let alone naked ones. And the increasing ubiquity of online pornography is making it difficult to de-sexualise the naked body, a prerequisite for nudist beaches and unisex saunas.
People are worried about being captured naked and unawares on someone’s smartphone camera. Between that, #metoo, and the (purported) difficulty people are having separating nudity from sex make it difficult to regard a naked body in a sexually neutral way. This isn’t a huge shock to those of us in North America, who are so game to conflate nudity with sexuality that we can’t even deal with women breast-feeding infants in public spaces.
But it’s sad and true. Quite a few years ago I wrote about the way a week at a nude resort actually helped me break through a lifetime of issues with poor body image. I don’t love that post as much as I used to because it links to a radio documentary of that experience in which I made some judge-y body-shaming comments that I would not make today. But it is absolutely true that being surrounded by nakedness and people of all shapes and sizes, it took me mere days to gain a sense of comfort with my body that I had never had before.
And that’s why it’s a shame that the need to cover up is spilling over into Europe. The article contains an interesting discussion of mixed sex saunas and how it used to be thought inappropriate to wear a swimsuit because it indicated that you were sexualizing bodies. Now, however, many Dutch saunas have introduced clothing optional hours and even swimsuit days to cater to a new sense of modesty among clientele.
I’m not sure if “modesty” is code for prudishness, poor body image, or the sexualization of nakedness, but if things continue to develop in this direction, next thing you know they’ll be hiding behind towels in European locker rooms the way they do at my hot yoga studio. (See “A Tale of Two Locker Rooms” for a years-old discussion of the difference between the young more modest vibe at hot yoga and the older, more body confident vibe in the locker room at the Y).
One thing I know for sure, when other people are covering up, it’s harder to feel comfortable naked. At least that’s been my experience. Here in Ontario, for example, women are legally allowed to go topless. But hardly anyone ever does. And the more hardly anyone does, the less likely anyone is to do it. But when everyone is naked (or if most Ontario women went topless at the beach), it’s not such a big deal. It soon starts to feel ordinary and unremarkable. That’s why some naturist (not to be confused with naturalists) communities insist on nudity, not on “clothing optional.”
Have you ever been to a nude beach, resort, sauna, or any place where everyone was naked yet not sexualized? What did it feel like from a body image perspective?
First, the French Open decides one of Serena’s outfits back in June is cause to tighten up their dress code rules. I wrote about that only a few days ago in Let Women Wear What They Want. Yesterday, the U.S. Open penalized Alize Cornet for oh-so-briefly taking off her shirt during a match.
Have women’s bodies become so hyper-sexualized that we (okay, really men) can’t even see a woman’s sports bra without coming apart at the seams? Watch the video. Alize’s shirt is off for less than thirty seconds. On a break, she had changed out of a sweat-soaked dress. She accidentally put her fresh shirt on backwards. I’m in New York City. I can attest to just how blistering the heat is. Riding at 6 a.m. with a friend this morning, we felt like we needed amphibious bikes to wade through the stifling humidity. I start sweating just looking out my window at the sunshine.
We are super-saturated by media images of women in their scanties. Are you as tired of Victoria’s Secret billboard cleavages as I am? The more we sexualize women in the media, the less room there is for women to be comfortable in their bodies and in their strength.
Meanwhile, no surprise, the male tennis players are sitting around without their shirts on whenever they feel like it.
The powers-that-be blather on about respecting the sport as an excuse to sanction women. The women ARE respecting the sport. Now let’s give the women the respect they deserve!
“The Act With Love art collective collaborated with illustrator Jade Sarson (winner of Myriad Editions First Graphic Novel competition with For the Love of God, Marie!) to visualise the research of Oli Williams (Department of Health Sciences). Their comic tells the story of how stigma associated with bodyweight and size gets under the skin and is felt in the flesh. “
I loved the section of the comic with the women in the pool. You get to see both their happiness at moving in the water and the anger of the lifeguards at their size. Stay in the slow lane and they are lazy fatties, not moving enough. Move to the fast lane and they are splashing too much and taking up space. Fat people just can’t win.
As someone who studies Sociology and has a visible disability (I use a wheelchair), I have always been interested in the relationship between culture and the individual (the body). I would suggest that my body falls outside the expected norm. I am often aware of strangers staring at me. I know people watch me get in and out of the car. I have had people come up to me at times and comment on things I am doing, things that I feel other people would go unnoticed for. I am also continually asked if I need help when out in public. I often wonder about how this frames my position and my body in society. As a bit of a hobby, I find ways to subvert or disrupt how my body is read or how people interact with me. I wear a lot of interesting shoes, because I feel it draws attention to a part of my body that makes people uncomfortable. Often when people ask if I need help, they will assume I want a push. My wheelchair doesn’t have push handles (specifically for this reason). I often get people to do things such as hold my coffee or purse while, I push myself. Someone once asked if I needed help while getting out of my car. I said yes and asked them to throw out my empty coffee cup. This interest in subversion and performance lends itself to a love of art and larger than life persona. I am fascinated by the work of Frida Kahlo. I appreciate contemporary art and performance. A recent fascination of mine was Body Painting. The idea of living canvas, inspired thoughts of Marchesa Casati. I applied to be a Body Painting Model for New York Body Painting Day. The application required a short paragraph about why you wanted to be a model.
I have become interested in body art and body painting as a way of reclaiming and redefining beauty. I am a woman with a disability. I have had the opportunity to do some modeling for a painting class. It is through this experience, that I have been able to understand my disabled body as both worthy and beautiful. I see participating in the body painting parade as a way to explore and shift the taken for granted understanding of the disabled body. I want all who see me in the parade to stop and think about how, the juxtaposition of art or a disabled body disrupts the taken for granted notions of disability as sickness or weakness.
I was ACCEPTED!!!
On July 14 2018, I got my chance to be living art as it were. I was a model for New York Body Painting day, held in Greenwich Village. The event was hosted by Human Connection Arts. The artist who painted me was Lisa Fried a painter and photographer from New Jersey. The event for me was about being living art. As mentioned above, I was really interested in disrupting the tensions between staring and disability. I was also curious about the tension between disability and beauty. The reactions from people were incredibly diverse.
The day started with being painted in Washington Square. This process was surprisingly interactive, because there was a crowd of onlookers for most of the day. It felt very avant-garde. I assume this must have been what the art models of the impressionist period felt like. This was my favourite part of the day. The artist painting me was very friendly and interested in hearing what I liked. She took inspiration from my mermaid tattoo. I explained that if mermaids were on land they would need wheelchairs. Additionally, the crowd for the most part seemed really engaged in watching the artistic process. Most people who were watching seemed embarrassed when I waved or smiled at them. For a lot of the process, I was naked, so I am curious if my acknowledgment that they were, there made salient that I could see them and they could see me. Lots of people both hired by human connects arts and random people took pictures. Interestingly I don’t think I am very good at having my picture taken. I tend to look directly at the camera if I want my picture taken and down or away if I am not consenting to the photo. This lead to a lot of very forced looking or posed photos. I wanted my image captured by all the body painting day photographers. However, I was less comfortable with the people at the park taking photos. It was a very Derridean experience. I wanted people to read and appreciate my image (story) one way, but really had no control over what on lookers or by standers thought.
Following the painting there was a photo shoot in the park which was largely inaccessible for someone who could not walk. All the models were asked to climb into a large fountain. This was frustrating because, I wasn’t included in the photos and by extension either was Lisa’s art. It was an interesting experience that in an environment that included so many people, and bodies a disabled body was unimagined. I brought my good friend Elisabeth Harrison with me who facilitated much of my access for the trip. I am very please to have such a good friend and ally.
After the photo shoot there was a parade and a bus ride through Greenwich Village. This was noteworthy, because it was a time, when I got to interact with both the public and the other painted models. Continuing with the theme of a Derridean experience, I elicited shock and awe from on lookers (the reaction I wanted). I had lots of people tell me how awesome I looked. People called out they wanted be painted too. However, I was also surprised how many people read me as needing help, or out of place. Lots of people asked if I needed help. Another, painted model explained he knew someone who used a wheelchair (they weren’t there; he just wanted me to know, he knew someone). There was however, another model there who used a wheelchair, she seemed very nice. An on looker called out “hey there’s a wheelchair”. Lisa the artist who painted me asked if I felt people were hesitant to look at me; when ironically, I might get looked at when not painted. I thought this was a good question and interesting observation. I am not sure if the reaction would have been different or more pronounced if I was walking vs. rolling. I appreciated the opportunity to experiment. I feel that for many on lookers I did disrupt the social position of disability, beauty and art. As with most art it goes out into the world. The arts has a story an interpretation. It lives within its time and context. I was living art. I had my goals and intentions for the day. I have my perceptions and readings of peoples reactions. I will never really know who was inspired; who was horrified and who was moved. Everyday I put my ideas and thoughts out into the world and everyday I have no control over what comes back. On a sunny Saturday on the Lower East side of New York, I put not only my thoughts and ideas out into the world but my body; and had no control over what came back. I will never forget the time I was living art. I am grateful to all involved including Lisa Fried and Human Connect Arts.
Samantha Walsh is a Doctoral Candidate in Sociology. She also works in the Not-For-Profit Sector.
Tracy and I enjoy exploring our areas of disagreement. That’s partly because we disagree about very few things. And also because our friendship is long and solid and it never feels, even we disagree strongly, that we are at any risk of hurting that friendship. I also almost always learn something from our disagreements.
I used to just accept this as something we felt differently about. In general, I haven’t shared Tracy’s body image problems or her disordered eating history. I’ve speculated that’s due in part to my connection to queer community (see Body Positivity and Queer Community) and to a lifetime of being outside body normative standards for women (The unexpected advantages of growing up chubby). Though I suppose that can’t be the whole story since I’ve got plenty of friends who share this back story but who can’t quite shake feelings of self loathing when it comes up their shape and size.
Lately though I’ve been thinking that Tracy and I disagree because we understand the term body positivity to mean different things. On my understanding of body positivity, I bet she’s in agreement. Or at least partway.
For me, it’s mostly about making spaces, not telling women what they must think and feel. So when Tracy says she experiences body positivity, sometimes, as a way she fails as a feminist, I think she’s understanding body positivity too individually.
This quote gets at the difference, I think. “True freedom from body oppression wouldn’t just be freedom from our own past shame, but a society that didn’t shame us for our bodies in the first place.”-Alysse Dalessandro, Body Positive Writer and Designer
It’s quoted in a piece by Melissa Gibson who says that people often think that body positivity is about loving your own body and thinking all bodies are beautiful but really the roots of the idea are far more radical. It’s about making room for all bodies outside the mainstream. That includes considerations of size but also age, ability, and race.
As Gibson says it’s not just about young, white, smaller fat women on Instagram feeling positive about their belly rolls.
Instead, look around. See the positive in all kinds of bodies. Think about what features of our communities, both in person and online, include and exclude.
Here’s tips for making your home a body positive space. How do we extend those to our schools and our workplaces, to gyms and to social spaces? How do we send the message that all bodies and welcome and valuable in all the spaces in which we move?
So on this understanding there’s room for body neutrality in body positive spaces but that doesn’t mean all attitudes are okay. I worry, for example, about thin women who say of themselves that they’re too fat.
Here’s the problem. When you hate your body because it’s too fat and you’re lots smaller than me it’s hard to believe that you aren’t judging me too. Either you think you’re special and different rules apply to you or the rules apply equally and I’m also too fat. Maybe you can think it, but please don’t say it.
Last week, Tracy posted here about her recent experience camping and swimming in hot weather. She saw kids splashing about, often just in bathing suit bottoms. Many men were shirtless in the campground. However, some of the women there expressed embarrassment and shame about showing their bodies, so they wrapped up in towels as much as possible, often avoiding wearing a swimsuit at all.
We’ve written a lot about bathing suits, swimwear and the politics/psychology/marketing and general swarm of discordant messaging around them. See a couple of them below:
Tracy’s post provoked some really interesting conversation (check out the comments here) about the reasons and motivations behind why we choose the swim duds we choose. The issue of body shame and how it affects our clothing choices is a sensitive and personal one, and it touched a few nerves. What I realized from reading and participating in the discussion was this:
We all have complex and tender relationships with our bodies. And swimwear presents a double challenge for many of us:
We have to choose swimwear that accommodates that tender relationship and lets us feel comfortable enough to present our bodies in public and participate in watery activity;
We have to develop emotional tolerance for the ways our swimwear sends signals to others about us (sometimes with misleading information).
We post a lot about body positivity, body neutrality, body image, body shaming, etc. For me, the result of this continuing conversation is that one view certainly doesn’t fit all here. We have the bodies we have, we have the emotional issues we have, and we have the preferences and motivations and interests we have. They’re all different.
However, I hope that, despite all these issues, it’s still possible for us to enjoy cannonballing into the pool, bodysurfing the waves, paddleboarding in that lake, or hanging out on the beach, enjoying sun and shade and breeze and sky.
Here are some of our thoughts about what we want to wear in water and why. I also wanted to share some of our non-traditional options or preferences.
The first thing to note is that I’m not really A Swimmer, so I tend not to have technical swim gear. At the same time, I have a very functional relationship with my swimgear — I pretty much swim to cool off in the summer or make sure I have a bathing suit when I’m traveling in case I want to take a dip in a pool. I prefer a sporty two piece that feels more like a sports bra and a bottom that covers my butt and has a draw string so that when I jump in, it doesn’t come off.
(That is, in places where it shouldn’t come off — when camping or in private, I prefer to swim naked). …. At the same time, I’m simultaneously Determined to Feel Comfortable being semi-clad in public, not always in the mood to keep the hair under control in the “bikini” area, and have had an experience with basal cell skin cancer on my face. So I tend to have layers that start with the sporty two piece and include a pair of shortish board shorts if I’m going to be hanging around for a long time, and maybe a white cotton long sleeved shirt that covers my shoulders and chest. I kind of look back longingly on the times when I felt comfortable on the beach in a real bikini (when I was in my 30s), but that’s more about my relationship with the sun than my relationship with my body.
I am also sort of Ostentatiously Comfortable running around in shorts and a sports bra. When running I often end up taking off my shirt and winding up in a sports bra, and the other day after a long hot ride, I whipped off my jersey and ran through a splashpad in my bike shorts and sports bra in full view of a number of adults who were totally covered up and constantly telling their kids not to splash them. I made the kids squirt me with their water cannons. I think I’m a different kind of adult.
I was thinking about the ways I like to feel in swimwear, namely skin covered but body shape exposed. I love tight speedo one pieces and I also liked the stinger suits (adult swimming onesies) for snorkeling in Australia. In fact, I’d wear one for ocean swimming, as I wouldn’t have to worry about sunscreen (just my face). I’ve always hated tankinis, as they ride up, which makes me feel frumpy and uncomfortable. Yes, I know—it’s also about my negative feelings about showing my belly. Well, there it is…
Why do I like one-piece suits? I think I feel sort of professional– like I’m a swimmer/athlete, even though I don’t swim a lot these days. It feels like it identifies me as an athlete in the way that wearing cycling kit does. I feel great in cycling kit, too, for the same reason.
Writing this post is making me rethink my position about two-piece suits; I feel self-conscious about showing a lot of skin and prominently displaying my breasts (albeit covered by a cute top). But I can now imagine circumstances where it might be fun and freeing, so it’s worth exploring. I’m now on the hunt for a bikini that says me.
These are two of my favorite swimwear pics (from about 5 years ago, so I need to get going with more recent bathing suit shots!), in my blue reversible speedo one-piece.
Me headed down a sliding board, head first.
Me at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland with my friend Martin and his daughter Julia.
I have always found bathing suits really problematic. Mostly because they don’t fit properly. There’s also a lot of fuss and bother because there are expectations on how women should look in bathing suits. But five years ago I was interviewing a woman who runs a lingerie store and discovered that there are lots of new styles in bathing suits. She encouraged me to try on this one suit and I absolutely loved it. Since last summer I have been averaging at least one swim a week if not two when my schedule allows it. My thought now is that once you get past the assumptions that people will make about differently sized and different looking bodies that are female in a suit you can find something that will work for you in the way that you need it to.
Here’s a selfie that Martha took of her in her favorite swimsuit:
It took me awhile to find the right sort of bathing suit, one that matches who I am. The bikinis I wear and prefer are athletic bikinis. And I think with my shoulders and leg muscles, the message they send is ‘I’m here to swim.’ Think athletic over aesthetic values, something I’ve blogged about here. Opting out of the bathing suit aesthetics has served me well but that’s not such an easy choice if you’re not someone who thinks of herself as an athlete.
These days I also wear skimpy hot tub bikinis. Think minimal coverage. But they’re for backyard use only. Just friends and family. I wouldn’t wear them to the beach though I’d comfortably go nude at a nude beach. But these days I’m also frantic and anxious about sun and skin damage. I had a friend of 15 years die in her early 40s with two kids under 5, from skin cancer. Lots of friends have had less serious skin cancer lesions removed. And a few years in Australia cemented the sun and skin cancer worry. Sunscreen is a back up thing. It’s not as effective as we think. The best plan is covering up and staying out of the sun.
Here are some pics of Samantha in swimwear:
Samantha selfie with blue patterned thin strappy top, and tattooed shoulders, in clear aquamarine water.
Samantha standing in clear salt water in a cove, wearing a blue patterned thin strapped bikini top and blue patterned bikini bottom.
What I look for in a swimsuit depends on what I’m looking for it for. I spend a lot of time on a sailboat and these days my swimsuit purchasing is mostly about what I can wear aboard. So I’ll get to that.
For lap swimming though, I like a simple one piece sport style suit with a racer back. My three most recent are plain suits that fit snugly and cost very little when I bought them at cost from my triathlon coach back when I did regular swim training. At that time (three years ago) I also really liked swimming in a wetsuit with my triathlon suit underneath. Wearing a wetsuit makes me move through the water in a way that feels sleek and fast. Mine is a full suit designed for swimming not diving. If you plan to get a wetsuit for swimming you absolutely need to get that kind. A diving wetsuit for scuba lacks the arm mobility for the kind of stroke you’ll do while swimming. Besides keeping me sleek in the water, the wetsuit is also great protection for lake swimming where there are weeds and fish and other things that freak me out. I’m not sure if they protect against jelly fish but they’re great for non-stinging creatures and plants.
Okay, for the boat. I’ve got at least ten bottoms and a bunch of bikini tops, two tankini tops and a one piece I never wear because it’s usually too hot. My favourite go-to bottoms right now are boy-shorts. I have two pairs — one black with white polka dots and the other plain blue. I wear them almost all the time on the boat. But I also have a few “Brazilian” bikinis. That’s the kind that are so skimpy they don’t even try covering your butt. They’re a bit too skimpy for some occasions (parents, for example) but good for a quick dive in and out, then off they come and the boy short comes back on. It’s functional and great for active living. I never have to pull at them or adjust them. My idea of successful clothing choice is something I can put on and stop thinking about. That extends to swimsuits.
I confess to feeling a bit self-conscious in a bikini top at the beginning of any time I spend on the boat. If there is one part of my body that I feel shame about (I’m doing my best not to write an angst-filled paragraph here) it’s my belly. Everything I actually believe rails against that and knows that it’s simply the old oppressive ideas of normative femininity combined with lingering body dysmorphia from my days of disordered eating and body obsession. So at the beginning I need to force myself. But I have tops that I really like and that fit well, and lots of them. And in a pinch, if I’m having a tough day where body acceptance eludes me, I go for the tankini top. On a positive note, I haven’t done that for some time AND I like my butt!
Final point: I am not opposed to tankini, one pieces, swim skirts, or anything that gives more coverage. Women can wear what they like. But if we wear these things out of body shame then there is work to do. That’s the main point I was making in my post the other day about body acceptance and camping.
Here are some swimwear pics of Tracy:
Self-portrait featuring Tracy’s head, shoulders, and her floral swim top, with blue sky in background
Self-portrait featuring Tracy’s black with small white dotted boy short bottom, her thigh and midsection, and tattooed right arm, with light blue sky in background.
Tracy as seen from the back– her blue boy short bottom, legs, blue patterned top, carrying a brown patterned bag. We see her tattooed left arm.
I’m posting here for her because she is, of course, way ahead of all of us, having already written two summers ago about her bikini body. Read all about it here. And you can see more photos of Natalie in her newly purchased bikini below.
Natalie, smiling in her new blue with back accents bikini, and relaxing on a boat.
Natalie again on the boat, posing and being ornamental (her words, and true!) on their boat trip.
My swimsuits tend to be largely functional. I have two suits, both are over 5 years old, one of them is a one piece and the other is a two piece but it essentially fits together like a one piece.
I don’t think I have owned a bikini since I was a little kid. It’s not a matter of self-consciousness, they just never had much appeal for me.
I did try to buy one a few years ago – just out of sheer stubbornness after I saw an article that explained why women my age *shouldn’t* wear them – but I didn’t like the lack of support. I hated the idea of spending my swimming time wondering if my top was slipping!
When I go swimming at ponds (if you are not in NL, you would probably call them lakes), I often keep a cotton skirt on when I go swimming – but that’s about not wanting to put on even more sunscreen rather than being concerned about how I look in my suit. (I view sunscreen as a necessary evil and I dress in layers to minimize having to apply more).
Readers: what are your favorite swim wear ensembles? What do you love? What do you hate? Who knows, maybe someone is listening to us– you never know…