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Swimsuits, Modesty, Sexism, and Respect

This video about the evolution of the swimsuit keeps popping up in my Facebook newsfeed. It is a nine-and-a-half minute, anti-bikini argument filmed in a TED-talkish sort of way. Jessica Rey, founder of Rey Swimwear, is marketing her product — expensive, modest swimwear designed with Audrey Hepburn as an inspiration.

And Rey makes some good points. I love that she questions how and why wearing less fabric gives women power. I love that this young woman chose to act on her beliefs. She saw what she perceived was a problem, then used her talents and gifts and knowledge to do something. I love that. I respect that. I also love that she references an actual scientific study. I remember reading about this study more than a year ago. I probably read about it in an article like THIS

The study describes brain scans done on men who were viewing photographs of women. When viewing photos of women in bikinis (in which the heads were cropped off), the men associated the women with first-person action verbs like I push,  I handleI grab. When viewing photos of fully-clothed women, the men associated those women with third-person action verbs. Based on these tests, researchers deduced that men are more likely to view women in bikinis as objects to be acted upon, rather than as people in charge of their own actions.

The study also shows that the part of the man’s brain associated with using tools lit up as they looked at the headless images of women in bikinis. Again, this reinforces the idea that men are more likely to view women in bikinis as objects to be used.

Most interesting to me, though, is that some men actually had an extreme physiological response to the photos of women in bikinis. The part of their brains responsible for analyzing another person’s thoughts and emotions and intentions completely shut down. These men essentially stopped viewing these women as humans. 

All of my Facebook friends who have posted this video have hopped on Jessica Rey’s bandwagon, using this information as solid evidence that women and girls should not wear bikinis, lest they be objectified by men.

And they have a point. I’m a mom of two young ladies in their teens. I don’t like the idea of men ogling them. And as of right now, we have a no bikini policy. My older daughter asked to buy a bikini this summer. And after listening to her respectful, well-planned presentation, my husband and I were not convinced that our teenage daughters in bikinis would be a good thing.

Some women argue that women should be allowed to wear whatever we want and that we shouldn’t be held responsible for what reaction men have to our clothing (or lack thereof). Though I can agree with this (no woman deserves to be attacked or abused or used based on what clothes she is or isn’t wearing), I also think that we humans, especially those of us who are brothers and sisters in Christ, do have some obligations for helping each other out. And if we understand that men have physiological reactions in their brains, completely subconsciously and without intention, based on our clothing choices, then it would be wise and helpful and compassionate to take that into consideration when purchasing our swimsuits.

And if I know this happens inside a man’s brain, and I know there’s not going to be a whole lot I can do about changing the brains of men I don’t know, then I certainly am going to consider these scientific facts when deciding what I will and will not allow my teenage daughters to wear. Because I don’t want men to see my daughters as objects. I don’t want men to stop viewing my daughters as humans with thoughts and intentions and feelings all their own. As a mom, I am compelled to consider these facts when granting or refusing permission for my daughters to wear bikinis.

The thing that has surprised me, though, is what I have not seen in conversations about this scientific study. Every conversation centered around this study ends up being a discussion about whether or not women should wear bikinis or whether or not we should allow our daughters to wear bikinis. I have not seen one conversation about what this study reveals about the way we’re raising our sons. 

You see, those men whose brains completely shut off the section that analyzes the thoughts and feelings and intentions of another person, the section of the brain that lights up when viewing another human — those men who stopped viewing the headless bikini-wearing women as people — that group of men was the same group whose questionnaires revealed their attitudes were associated with the most hostile sexism. These men viewed women in an adversarial way.

Their attitudes and thoughts toward women physiologically altered the way their brain responds to photographs of women. Their subconscious, unintentional reaction came about because of thoughts and attitudes which had somehow been learned.

(*I know some would argue that perhaps men’s physiology controls their thoughts. That men with super-high testosterone levels or men whose brains automatically think “I use that tool” when seeing a woman in a bikini have developed sexist attitudes based on the chemical makeup of their brain. I reject that notion because I believe that thoughts and attitudes are learned and chosen, not the product of some brain chemistry we cannot control. Quite the contrary, science has proven our thoughts and attitudes influence the chemistry and functions of our bodies.)

Suddenly, based on what the study actually shows, this marketing video for modest swimwear and the articles on this scientific study are not only about whether or not I allow my daughters to wear bikinis. No, this video and this study are screaming alarms to me as a mother of four boys!

What my husband and I teach our sons about women matters. It matters greatly! If we allow sexism in any form to settle into their thoughts, into their hearts, we are impacting the subconscious, physiological reactions of their brain chemicals.

Just as much as I do not want men to ogle my daughters and view them as objects, I do not want my sons to ogle their female friends and view them as objects. I don’t want my sons to see women in bikinis and stop thinking of them as fellow human beings with emotions and intentions and thoughts all their own.

I refuse to believe that my sons will inevitably view women as objects after the amount of fabric on their bodies gets below a certain square-inch amount. And this scientific study supports me in that belief. If it was only the men who view women with the most hostile sexism whose brains stopped viewing bikini-wearing women as humans and instead saw them as tools, then other men, those men without hostilely sexist opinions, still viewed bikini-wearing women as fellow human beings. I want my sons to fall into that camp!

As the mom of both girls and boys, I have an obligation to teach all my children to respect and care for all people. This includes teaching my daughters to respect guys enough to not toy with physiological reactions the guys may not be able to fully control.  This also includes teaching my sons to respect girls, to challenge sexism in any form, to view women as valuable human beings whose feelings and thoughts and intentions matter every bit as much as any man’s.

I’ll be honest with you – it frustrates me that so many people have been posting this video and seem to be saying, See, girls, guys can’t help it. It’s inevitable; men are going to objectify any woman in a bikini. So it’s your job to put on more clothes. I disagree with that. Firstly, I think that the study indicates that when men have a respect for and appreciation of women as people, their brains still view women as humans even when tempted to objectify them (when the tool-related parts of the brain fire up). Secondly, we know that men rape and abuse and objectify women who are wearing more than a bikini. Women in burqas are even raped and objectified. So we can’t blame it on a bikini. Or a miniskirt.  The responsibility for whether or not men objectify women does not rest on women as we choose our clothing for the day.

But the responsibility for helping mold my sons’ attitudes toward women does rest on me. That is a responsibility we women who are raising sons do have! And it troubles me that I do not see this conversation circling around this video. I see far more, FAR MORE, internet conversations about teaching our daughters modesty than I do about teaching our sons to reject sexism, to reject the idea that women are objects, to value women as equal human beings whose feelings and ideas and intentions and emotions are equally important.

As a mother to both girls and boys, I am committed to both conversations — teaching my daughters modesty and teaching my sons to value and respect women.

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One thought on “Swimsuits, Modesty, Sexism, and Respect

  1. THANK YOU. I AM THE FATHER OF 4 CHILDREN ( 2 GIRLS & 2 BOYS) THEY ARE IN THEIR MID 40’S .1 OF MY SON’S HAS 2 BOYS & 2 GIRLS 1 OF MY DAUGHTERS ALSO HAS 2BOYS & 2 GIRLS . I AM CONCERNED ABOUT THIS PROBLEM (IF YOU WANT TO IT THAT) DO THEY PICK UP THESE IDEAS FROM OTHER KIDS OR WHAT??? ONE FAMILY THE KIDS ARE 10 YRS DOWN TO 5 YRS , THE OTHER FAMILY THE CHILDREN ARE SENIORS IN HI SCHOOL DOWN TO FIRST GRADE. HOW DO WE TEACH THEM TO TREAT WHO THEY LOOK AT JUST ANOTHER PERSON????? THANK YOU. THESE GRAND CHILDREN CAN TEACH US SO MUCH BY JUST WATCHING & LISTENING TO THEM.

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