Tokyo Olympics

Blog: To bikini or not to bikini — Olympics 2020 wants to know

Mahwash Ajaz/Dubai
Filed on July 28, 2021
The Norwegian handball team

Is it mostly for the male gaze, or is the outfit actually helpful and liberating and not as restrictive?

Policing of women's bodies is not new. There is a tonne of conversation around this issue, given the digital age, but be it the fashion world or politics or even sports, the flashpoints always list women's bodies and clothing.

When the disciplinary committee of the European handball federation fined Norway's women handball team 150 euros per player because they wore shorts and not bikini bottoms, the conversation went back to how and why women's bodies are policing grounds when they absolutely need not be.

Female pop star Pink immediately spoke up and asked to pay their fines, stating on Twitter, "The European handball federation should be fined for sexism." The latter part was in all caps.

Her tweet was liked by nearly 200,000 people, and she later retweeted an image of a photo of men who were wearing long shorts and tank tops in contrast to women who were wearing bikini tops and bottoms.

A short history of the bikini

The word itself comes from a stray of islands that was bombarded by a nuclear bomb. French designer Jacques Heim came up with the idea of the 'bikini' swimsuit four days after Bikini Atoll was bombed. France had banned people from wearing the bikini in 1949 (curiously, France recently fined women for wearing the burkini on its beaches just recently, claiming it to be a threat to its secular values). But the bikini gradually found acceptance, mainly through film stars with Ursula Andress, who wore the two piece in the James Bond film 'Dr. No' in 1962.

The genesis of the clothing itself isn't old. While there were instances of the said clothing in ancient Roman history, swimming outdoors was considered taboo in the West. It wasn't until the 18th century that swimming and bathing outdoors became a more usual activity, and the concept of beachwear began making its way into fashion choices. Until the early 1900s, beachwear for women in Europe was figure-hugging overalls but loose chemises weren't exactly out of fashion either. But in 1930s, you could see actresses sporting midriff-baring outfits and within the next three decades, bikinis (small blouses and bottom hugging briefs) were used for underwear as well as swimwear.

Are bikinis necessary in the sporting world?

The two-piece swimwear for women has been largely used in sports when it comes to beachball, bodybuilding and surfing.

Many have argued that it's more of an 'attraction' point than a sporting necessity. In the 1980s, Florence Griffith Joyner wore a one-legged pair of tights with bikini bottoms. What transpired after that was historical: her choice of clothes at the 1988 Summer Olympics garnered more eyeballs than many events in that time.

This also creates a lot of pressure for female athletes to look a certain way, especially in the age of Instagram when there is massive peer pressure to look and appear almost perfect, and looking less than 100 per cent in a revealing bit of clothing can be troubling for many. Another point of view that feminists discuss while denouncing the bikini is that it is mostly for the male gaze and serves no purpose for the sport itself (Pink's retweet comes to mind). However, many participants have supported the bikini, saying that it's helpful while they play in the sand and that it's not as restrictive as some other uniforms might be. For many it is liberating.

Perhaps the committee should just accept what a popular op-ed suggested. It's 2021. Let women wear what they want. Not ball gowns at a rowing event or jeggings while lifting weights – but if it's a hijab as was in the case of Hedaya Malak, the first woman to win a medal for Egypt in Tokyo, or the Norwegian team that refused to wear bikini bottoms – isn't that a legitimate demand? You decide.

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