home Commentary, Europe, Feminism, Women The beach has always been a place to control women’s bodies

The beach has always been a place to control women’s bodies

It has been hard to escape the recent controversy surrounding the prohibition of modest Muslim swimwear in areas of coastal France. The ‘burkini ban’ has been implemented in towns including Villeneuve-Loubet and Cannes, with authorities claiming the outfits signify religious extremism or, rather quizzically, bad hygiene.

A vintage photo of a woman preparing to swim.In either case, the notion that these outfits are oppressing the women that wear them or offend the beach-going public are ill founded. The ‘burkini’, far from being routed in extremist regimes, was in fact designed in Australia around a decade ago, as a way of liberating women who were unable to enter the water due to the dress code they adhere to on a daily basis. It has revolutionised swimming for many Muslims, including lifeguard Mecca Laa Laa (above) and the Iranian athlete Elham Sadat Asghari, who endured an even stricter form of dress in order to complete her disputed record-breaking swim across the Caspian sea. The modest attire has even appeared to gain a surge in popularity with non-religious women since the ban has been enforced (or perhaps following Nigella Lawson’s lead), as a way of combatting sun exposure.

Whatever the reasoning, this bizarre form of Islamophobia ties into a much greater tradition of endemic beach-side sexism. Ever since women have approached the water local authorities, public officials — not to mention the media — have controlled how women dress and behave under the guise of morality or, more recently, entertainment.

These forms of control began with Victorian bathing machines, where the notion of seeing women entering the water was so abhorrent that they were forced to ride in a four-wheeled shed (known as a bathing machine) into the shallows so they could swim away from prying eyes.

A police officer measuring a woman's bathing costume. At least by the 1920s we could sit openly on the shore, but the strict laws surrounding suitable attire led to American police officers enforcing penalties for women who didn’t meet sartorial requirements. In 1921, a bather in Atlantic City, New Jersey was arrested for wearing her stockings rolled below her knees and refusing to pull them up. She retaliated during her arrest by punching the officer in the eye.

It goes without saying that men have never been subject to such laws, and the obsession with the female beach body has permeated to such a degree that London Mayor Sadiq Khan sought to ban advertising on public transport that directly invoked ‘body shaming’ following a particularly offensive weight-loss promotion that appeared last year.

It’s a noble effort, but the fact remains that tabloid newspapers and weeklies are still obsessed with celebrity bikini shots, scrutinising minute weight gain and loss with disturbing fever throughout the summer months.

An ad featuring a woman in a bikini asking if the viewer is beach body ready.It is true that the burkini ban is the first time women appear to have been penalised for failing to expose enough of their body, and it is certainly rooted in horrifying prejudices tied to race and religion. But the fact remains that this is simply a new chapter in the continued societal oppression of the female body, played out on hostile strips of sand.

This post originally appeared on Medium, and has been reprinted with permission.