France has recently decided that women must bare their flesh at the beach. No burkinis allowed. Not my idea of liberty but hey, France is a sovereign nation and I don’t have to go there.
The rationale for the banning of the burkini seems to be that it is a foreign and alien importation into France, an impurity introduced into France’s pristine secularism. The burkini is a play on the burqa (worn by Pushtuns indigeneous to Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the bikini. Bikinis are now (presumably) supposed to be compulsorarily worn by women at French beaches – whether they like it or not. But how French, or indeed how Western, are bikinis?
A hundred years ago in Europe, men and women covered themselves when going to the beach. Women covered themselves up fairly thoroughly going just about everywhere, save for perhaps balls and banquets and even then there were exhaustive rules of decorum to abide by. Despite the occasional and partial unveiling of flesh, the linking of clothes and civilised mores was maintained.
Ideas about the beach changed, however. Beach excursions were traditionally seen as ways to take in the water, paddling the feet in the saline waves the order of the day. Gradually enjoyment of the sun was added to enjoyment of the sea and sand and this new additional enjoyment called for less clothes (this was long before the harmful effects of the sun vis-a-vis skin cancer were known).
However, what really shifted attitudes towards swimwear was the increasing fascination Westerners had with South Sea Island (Polynesian) culture. Polynesian females had little scruples about exposing themselves and they were content with being ‘hunted.’ A critical book in this regard was anthropologist Margaret Meads Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). Polynesians were portrayed as not only sexually liberated (this was known in the 18th century but frowned upon generally) but were also seen as being free of the ‘vices’ of moral purity that ‘blighted’ Western society. This extolling of Polynesian morals was coupled in the inter-war years with a critique of Western sexual mores led by people like Franz Boas, Meads mentor.
The upshot was that the authoritarian and patriarchal family structure of the West – which regulated sexual behaviour for the common good – came to be seen as immoral, wicked and a general obstacle to liberty. Tragically, the theories of those like Mead have come to be seen as fabricated but the myth of an idyllic sexual paradise was too strong a pull for idealists in the West. Down to this day, it’s regularly bandied about that traditional ideas of morality cripple people and psychologically damage them.
In 1946 the bikini was invented in France and fittingly named after an island in the South Sea – Bikini Atoll. Perhaps equally fittingly, this name was also chosen because the bikini was small and explosive like the atom bombs being tested on that island at the time. Quite a statement! The swimwear now enforced on French beaches is associated with destructiveness and inhumanity.
The papacy is arguably the one defining institution of Western Christendom. Pope Pius XII declared the bikini to be sinful. Countries like Ireland and Spain refused to partake in the first Miss World contests over the bikini and the new style was attacked by American Catholics.
So the history of the bikini answers our question. Its inception was part of the broad-based lie concerning Western sexuality and family. Moral purity and wholesome values which the bikini eroded are pillars of Western civilisation and destructive Polynesian type mores represent an attack on the West. So, how Western is the bikini? Not very.