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Modesty, Power, and Bikini Burning


“Modesty isn’t about hiding ourselves, it’s about revealing our dignity.” –Jessica Rey


I’ve been a bikini-wearer for twenty years now. In fact, I’m a bit of a collector of bikini’s. Last time I did a purge, I still had about six or seven left in my drawer. I see swim suits like shoes – different ones for different moods – and so I have a hard time parting with them. (And just for the record, it’s not that I’m buying new ones all the time. Apart from my belly growing a bit [babies] and my boobs growing and shrinking a bit [yup, babies], I haven’t changed sizes much. So the collection just grows as I pick up a new one every couple of years.)

For me, wearing bikinis has always been about the tan. Maximum exposure equals less awkward tan lines. (I’m classy like that.) I’ve always considered my bikinis “modest” – as in not too skimpy – and I’ve definitely added tankinis to my collection as I’ve gotten older and as styles have gotten cuter.

But then I watched this video – the evolution of the swim suit – and had to pick my jaw up off the floor.

If you don’t have nine minutes to spare, let me give you a quick run down of what actress and designer Jessica Rey shares.

She starts off by presenting the history of the bikini – a fascinating little synopsis that begins in France in 1946 and explodes in America in the 1960’s during the sexual revolution… to the point of becoming a multi-billion dollar industry ($8 billion in spending last year alone).

Rey goes on to showcase research done at Princeton University – brain scans performed on men while they look at images of scantily clad women. Researchers were shocked at what they found. The part of the brain that lit up while looking at these images was the same part that lit up when looking at images of tools – screwdrivers and hammers. The even more shocking revelation was that for many of these men the part of the brain associated with thoughts, feelings, and intentions (the medial prefrontal cortex) completely shut down. Experts say this part of the brain rarely ever shuts down.

Analysts at National Geographic concluded that bikinis inspire men to see women as something to be used, not people to connect with.

In short, these men saw scantily clothed women in the same way they saw power tools. (Uhhh… I want one for my collection? Using one will make me happy? Add it to my Christmas wish list, please?)

See the problem here? Yikes.

This is so. not. okay.

I don’t know a single woman that desires to be objectified or used, and yet we often wear whatever makes us feel good, taking no mind of the implications beyond how we immediately feel. (Not that it’s intrinsically wrong to wear what makes us feel good; I’m all for using clothes to help reveal, express, and affirm beauty… all of which make us feel good.)

But the realization that I have this measure of power and influence springing from the clothes I wear makes me think long and hard about how I want to handle that. Do I want to use my power to turn men’s brains off and put myself in a position to be more easily objectified? Or do I want to use my power to make sure I’m taken seriously?

For me it’s a no-brainer.

This is not about dressing in a way to please or not please men, or even to protect them or—to use christianese terms—to “keep them from stumbling”. I don’t believe a man’s reaction to a women is her responsibility. (To that line of reasoning I’d say: come on guys, don’t let some fabric and stitches emasculate you and demoralize her. You’re more man than that – give yourself a little credit.) You can look at it from any angle – men objectifying women is just plain wrong. Always.

And this is also not about a false pretense that a certain level of modesty will serve as protection from genuine male predators. Men who seek to objectify and harm women will do so regardless of what a women is wearing. (Let’s not take this to the extreme that women are responsible for date rape and other forms of violence against women. Don’t even go there cuz I might get up and angry… and that just ain’t pretty.)

Although these are both important issues worthy of exploring further, the point of this post is to say YES and AMEN to the premise that choosing to be modest is choosing to wield your feminine power well.

Modesty isn't about hiding ourselves. It's about revealing our dignity.

{image source}

It all boils down to empowering women – ourselves.

Modesty is not outdated, it’s not unrealistic, it’s not frumpy, and it’s not anti-feminist.

Modesty – in it’s truest form – is not about hiding our beauty, it’s about handling it well.

Dear friends, what do you think? What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘modesty’? I’m still learning and grappling with what I believe it is to be modest. But I’m not shirking it off as outdated anymore. How about you? Ready to burn your bikinis?? (Jokes! For the record, I’m still keeping a couple for when I’m by myself or with my husband or just too pregnant to fit into anything else.)


31 Days of Women Empowering Women at p.s. This post is part of 31 Days of Women Empowering Women, as well as part of a larger movement of writers all over the world joining in with The Nester in writing everyday for the month of October. See hundreds of incredible #31Days projects here.


  • Reply Anna C 7 October 2013 at 10:47 am

    What Rey didn’t tell you about that Princeton study is that the men who were objectifying women were known to be hostile sexists(the researchers’ own words). Men who are already hostile sexists probably objectify most if not all women they encounter. And the photos of women in bikinis that were shown to these hostile sexists? They were HEADLESS photos.

    I don’t think it’s any surprise that when a hostile sexist is shown a headless photo of a woman in a bikini, he objectifies her. I also don’t think that data translates into real life in any useful way. I’m much more interested in a discussion about what turns men into hostile sexists, how women are objectified in media and advertising all day long, and why headless photos were used in this study than I am in a discussion about what women should and shouldn’t wear in order to not be objectified. It’s not my job to prevent someone from objectifying me.

    • Reply Adriel 7 October 2013 at 11:59 am

      Anna, wow, if that is the case about the Princeton study then the presentation of the research is VERY misleading. Can you point me in the direction of what you’re referring to or how you got that information? I’d be very interested in verifying this. Thank you so much for bringing it to my attention, because if that’s true (headless women, previously determined ‘hostile sexists’) then you are right and the presentation loses it’s substantiating power altogether. Please share?

      And yes, I thought I made it clear that I also agree that it’s not my (or any woman’s) responsibility to prevent someone from objectifying us. That’s not fair to women and heaps burden upon burden that shouldn’t even be there in the first place. What I am interested in is what women can do to put ourselves in the place of most success and gain a (healthy) sense power over our lives. If our clothing is part of this, then I definitely want to know.

      And yes, “what turns men into hostile sexists, how women are objectified in media and advertising” is another issue all together (a much bigger one) and absolutely needs to be addressed in public forums where women have a voice. I don’t feel in a position to cover that well at this point (I mean, I could try, but it would just be a rant based on my own observations and feelings of disgust). The reason I thought this video about the modesty issue was worth highlighting is because it’s something within our control and therefore a way we can empower ourselves/each other. However if the video is misleading, then that puts things in a different light and begs the question: do we need to reconsider?

      Thanks for your input – I hope you can share more with me?
      Adriel recently posted..Violence Against Women: A Global Crisis | 31 Days of Women Empowering WomenMy Profile

      • Reply Russ 7 October 2013 at 2:35 pm

        Adriel, here’s a pretty exhaustive takedown of Jessica Rey’s interpretation of the research by a social science PhD:

        Beyond that, here’s a link to the actual published study results, so you can read it yourself:

        From the research abstract: “In line with our first hypothesis, male participants with high HS [hostile sexism] scores were faster to associate sexualized female targets with first-person action verbs and clothed female targets with third-person action verbs than the inverse. This suggests that sexualized women are more closely associated with being the objects, not the agents, of action as compared to clothed women, but only for men who possess hostile sexist attitudes.”

        In other words, as the author of the post I linked says (and I strongly encourage you to read it, it does a pretty amazing job at tearing apart everything that’s wrong with Jessica’s video): “The study itself provides evidence for and concludes something completely different than what the Jessicas of the world says it does, especially if you are applying the findings to the modesty debate!”

        You also want to consider the source—Jessica Rey sells “modest” swimsuits, so she has a financial interest in people believing that bikinis are bad. I’d like to think that she’s just not great at science and misinterpreted the data, but the fact that she stands to profit financially from people who want modest swimwear does not put her in a positive light.

        • Reply Adriel 7 October 2013 at 11:36 pm

          Thank you so much for those links Russ. I’m very eager to read them tomorrow.

          The research abstract alone discredits Rey’s presentation. I’m very disturbed to think the research was pulled out of context as much as this would indicate so will definitely be reading for myself. Appreciate you taking the time to give me the links.

          And yes, you’re right, the fact that she stands to make a profit doesn’t put her in a positive light at all. If the research was valid (in how she presented it) then it would be more plausible to think “ok then, she’s being a part of the answer to the problem”. But if it’s been taken grossly out of context then that absolutely makes her look like she’s manipulating for profit. Obviously that’s not ok. I suppose I shouldn’t say more until I’ve read the study.

          Thanks again.
          Adriel recently posted..Hope for our future looks like this | 31 Days of Women Empowering WomenMy Profile

          • AnnaC 7 October 2013 at 11:53 pm

            Thanks for sharing those links, Russ. I was too busy this morning to get to it.

            I had a hunch you’d feel that way, Adriel. I agree, I find it very disturbing that when looking at a study with hostile sexists looking at headless photos of women in bikinis, it’s the bikini that’s labeled as problematic, not the hostile sexists or the headless photos. I think that’s a sign of a larger societal problem of deep rooted mysoginy. And I think that people selling ‘modest’ bathing suits and legalism have a lot to gain from that misinterpretation.
            AnnaC recently posted..It always comes back to connection.My Profile

          • AnnaC 8 October 2013 at 12:00 am

            Oops, misogyny. 🙂
            AnnaC recently posted..It always comes back to connection.My Profile

          • factcheckersrule 10 June 2014 at 2:55 am

            As the author of the mormon-blog “rah” so kindly gave us full disclosure- they are NOT a Neuroscientist.. why don’t we read an article that discusses the study that the blog author “rah” (AKA NON-Expert) attempted to dissect.. AND* pay special attention to the additional studies/scientific findings on the subject. Honestly- if your common sense cannot fathom that men seeing women barely clothed aren’t exactly thinking straight– which is most likely because instead of looking at the women’s FACE AND EYES and thinking about how they are an individual person– they are LOOKING AT THEIR BODIES, SIZING THEM UP, and thinking a host of other thoughts I shall not type…. If common sense does not alert you to this fact- there is a problem. We know men are generally speaking (neuroscientific studies empirically agree) , hardwired to be visual (some women are as well– I am one of those women).. truly though– If we know that men are usually visual, then why is it so difficult for ANYONE to understand that heterosexual men are going to be distracted by sexuality??? I would venture the guess- non expert opinion.. this is the COMMON SENSE opinion– Men who are sexist, chronic pornography viewers, and violent probably go to objectifying faster & get stuck there longer (if they come out of that perspective at all).. whereas “normal” heterosexual men would naturally vary in how soon they were distracted by women’s bodies (as objects).. and they would vary with how long it took them to begin thinking about the woman as an individual agent of her own thoughts, feelings, and actions. To just laugh off the FACT that men objectify women under certain circumstances is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. And just like men are responsible for their sins mentally— the rest of the world is responsible for their sins of covering their nakedness.. Bathsheba?… do a word study on nakedness and uncover…

          • Jaq 6 July 2016 at 4:02 pm

            You don’t need to be a neuroscientist to read and understand the abstract– and it Rey a neuroscientist that you accept everything she has to say?
            Factchecker- what an ironic name! You didn’t even read your own links!
            Link #1 ” male (but not female) participants with higher hostile sexism scores more quickly associated sexualized women with first-person action verbs (“handle”) and clothed women with third-person action verbs (“handles”) than the inverse, as compared to their less sexist peers”
            It’s saying the hostile sexist men objectified women, but the less sexist men didn’t. Which is exactly what commenter above said!
            Link #2″The current studies examine the effect of perceivers’ sexist attitudes on associations of agency with, and neural responses to, images of sexualized and clothed men and women.”
            This is summary of the same study. Seriously, it’s the height of laziness to post links without bothering to even read them first. They all say the exact opposite of what you’re claiming.
            Link #3 is a news article about the SAME STUDY, which disturbingly also refers to the participants as just “men” rather than “hostile sexists.”
            Link #4 Is the SAME STUDY AGAIN.
            If it’s “common sense” to you men automatically objectify women in bikinis, then the “men” in your life are not men, they are pigs.
            “instead of looking at the women’s FACE AND EYES and thinking about how they are an individual person– they are LOOKING AT THEIR BODIES”
            Yup, you hang out with pigs. Only pigs act like this. I wear bikinis and my male friends look me in the eye, carry on a conversation, treat me perfectly normally. There is nothing that forces a man to ogle a woman’s bare stomach or shoulders any more than there is anything that forced men in the past to freak out over the sight of a woman’s ankle.

  • Reply Bruce 7 October 2013 at 10:47 pm

    I grew up in a cold climate and spent much of my time in church with older women who would barely show an ankle. Later, after I got married, I lived several years in Hawaii and was part of an adult swim club. I regularly swam in the pool or the ocean with women either in bikinis or regular swimsuits. It was of course a pleasant experience, but I valued the women more for their friendship than for their bodies. For some, wearing a bikini was their kind of trade mark (they wore a bikini when biking, too). We were all part of a large interconnected group, and we were used to seeing each other in swimwear almost every day.
    No one ever went topless, so I cannot comment on that. However, wearing bikinis appears to be quite normal to me, and I was as a result less inclined to feel lonely and go “looking” whether in magazines or TV.
    In some (considered more primitive) cultures, e.g., Micronesia, people can go about their daily business with little clothing. The trouble with the Western culture is that people are so obsessed with sex due to the way women are portrayed in the media, that people end up covering themselves from head to toe because they think any guy they meet is going to show an interest in them.

    • Reply Adriel 8 October 2013 at 12:00 am

      Bruce – yes, I hear you. I actually considered delving into cultural implications as I have spent all of my adult life overseas living in varied cultures, but then thought it wouldn’t work as well in the context of this post so left it. But yes, through my time living and traveling overseas for 15+ years, I’ve learned that the out-workings of ‘modesty’ are so different from culture to culture. (And I’d agree with you that the media is our problem in the West – the continual objectification of women and girls as well as the norms set forth that boys end up expecting and girls end up aspiring to.)

      I’d go so far as to say it’s not even what’s being revealed that is the problem, but how. For example seeing a woman with an exposed breast nursing her baby is completely different to seeing an over-sexualized billboard of a scantily clad woman (even if less of her breast is exposed). It’s the spirit of it that makes the hugest difference. I’ve been in places where showing your entire midriff is perfectly acceptable, but showing your shoulders isn’t. I’ve been to others where being topless is “normal” but a woman would never show her knees or thighs. In other places, it’s considered immodest to wear your hair down. There are so many variables by culture when looking at an issue like modesty so where do we draw the lines? Culturally? Nationally? Globally? I don’t have the answers, although I have always tried to respect cultural norms of modesty. When in Egypt, I never wore my hair down. When in India, I always covered my shoulders. When in Papua New Guinea, I never showed my knees. When in many parts of the world, I’ve covered my tattoos or only worn long skirts or wore board shorts over my swimmers at the beach – whatever will best honor the local culture and their accepted norms of modesty. The reality is that modesty is somewhat tied to culture, so what I might be fine with in one cultural setting won’t work in another. Anyway, it’s a fascinating aspect of this discussion for sure and I probably have a lot more to say about it but should cut off this mega-comment now. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your experience Bruce.
      Adriel recently posted..Pro Choice. Pro Voice. Pro Girl Declaration. | #31Days of Women Empowering WomenMy Profile

  • Reply Hannah 1 January 2014 at 8:45 am

    I know I’m late in commenting (I just found your blog, Adriel, and I love you!), but I had to add in my favorite quote on modesty “Dress as you would want other women to dress in front of YOUR husband.” When I read that, it made complete sense to me.
    Hannah recently posted..DIY: New Year’s Nails for $1.99!My Profile

    • Reply factcheckersrule 10 June 2014 at 3:10 am

      “Dress as you would want other women to dress in front of YOUR husband.” Think about what you’d want your son, brother or father to see.. think about how you would want your daughter, sister or mother to be dressed- knowing full well how they’d be viewed.. GOD ALONE knows the intent of every heart and every single passing thought in every mind–> CHRIST KNOWS if we are hoping someone will look at us “that way” –>because that somehow boosts our self-confidence??? May our esteem, confidence, IDENTITY be IN CHRIST ALONE!

      No we cannot prevent others from lusting if they are intent on sin- but what we CAN do is obey God by not uncovering our nakedness and becoming a Bathsheba. Lascivious & Licentious- strong words used in the Bible against SIN.. Look them up- if you are INCITING lust, it is a sin according to the word of God. Again- some people bent on evil- every imagination of their heart is wicked (as it says in the Word).. but that does not mean that we should start sinning by ignoring our ability to sinfully incite lust or refuse to choose Godly Righteous modesty just because some people are HELL BENT on being lustful full time.

      • Reply Jaq 6 July 2016 at 4:18 pm

        Bathesheba was bathing in a normal place for bathing in her culture. Nowhere, not ONCE, in the Bible does it even suggest that Bathsheba was being immodest. It is downright offensive that you think a woman is at fault if a man spies on her when she is naked.

  • Reply Francia Henriquez 30 June 2014 at 2:30 pm

    I just found your article. I wrote one about the same topic a few days ago. Give it a look.

    “Women give men the power to see them as objects. When women decide to wear a bikini it is with solely intention to feel empowered.”

    • Reply Jaq 6 July 2016 at 4:24 pm

      I’m going to take issue with that quote immediately. It is pretty egotistical and prideful to imagine that you know the thoughts and motives behind every single woman who has ever chosen to wear a bikini.
      I wear a bikini because it’s the only swimsuit I’ve ever owned that doesn’t creep up in the back. I don’t have to tug the bottoms back into place all the time, and I can tie the top as tight as I want, unlike a one-piece or tankini. It has nothing to do with feeling empowered or wanting people to look at me. It has everything to do with having a long torso and big hips. If I wanted to make people look at me to feel empowered, then I’m going about it in a pretty stupid way, since I almost daily go to a beach where there is no one around and swim by myself. Who do you think I am trying to impress, a squid or a starfish?

      • Reply Z 5 August 2017 at 12:28 am

        JAQ, you make a great point. Different women have different body types, so different swimsuits may suit them. Really, people should not get into the trap of a one-size-fits-all mentality.
        And another thing is, not all bikinis are the same. Not all of them are itsy-bitsy stringy things. Some of them have bra-sized tops, and firm bands to provide proper support. Some bikini bottoms are high-waisted, full briefs. Some tops are midkinis. And some women need different-sized tops and bottoms. And I can imagine that a tankini top can be harder to put on if a woman has a large difference between bust and waist measurements. So really, we can’t automatically know what’s inside someone else’s mind and heart!

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