Friday Ephemera

Bikini Ideology

A Guardian reader asks,

Do some women really suffer angst over such mind numbing trivia, or were you just pressured to write a piece on this subject?

The piece in question, by the chronically unhappy Laurie Penny, concerns the socio-political ramifications of ladies’ swimsuits. Specifically, the bikini. Ms Penny’s approach to this crushing social issue is a tad presumptuous and long on assertion. Among its gems is this:

The bikini itself has a sinister semiotic history.

See, you just don’t get that kind of thing in the Times.

Those with a stake in the mythology of the garment now focus on its namesake island as a tropical paradise, but bikini ideology is poisoned with the cultural fallout of the mid-20th century in more ways than one.

Bikini “mythology” is something of a stretch and the word “marketing” might have been less grandiose. But bikini ideology? A whole ideology? Such a thing exists? Alas, Ms Penny is much too rushed to elaborate, beyond stating her belief that,

Wearing a bikini is no longer associated with pleasure and daring, but with anxiety, dieting rituals and joyless physical performance... The bikini body is not supposed to be naturally occurring: it is a quasi-religious state of myth and artifice to which only the truly virtuous can aspire.

Curse those Special K adverts. Is there nothing they can’t ruin? Thankfully, there’s time for plenty of earnest disapproval:

This summer, women of all ages are once more being exhorted to get the perfect “bikini body” by every tabloid, gossip circular and glossy magazine. Singer Katy Perry and heiresses the Kardashian sisters are among this week’s “best bikini body” celebrities, and ordinary women everywhere are trying to emulate their fairytale lifestyles by purchasing a particular cellulite-busting body scrub or embarking on a bizarre starvation diet.

I somehow doubt that Guardian readers spend too much time following the exhortations and “cultural edicts” of Grazia or Heat magazine, as if they could hold the secret to eternal contentedness. Nor, I should think, does Ms Penny or her elevated colleagues. Perhaps the effect is limited to those ordinary women, who, one might suppose, have no minds of their own to make choices of their own, and who exist as mere flotsam on a sea of social pressures. 

I, for one, will happily confess I have no idea who Katy Perry is or what her views on beachwear are, nor could I reliably identify any of the Kardashian sisters. Shockingly, I have zero interest in their “fairytale lifestyles” or preferred tanning products. Just as I remain unpreoccupied by fragrance adverts featuring this season’s favoured actor or male model, and where the message seems to be “don’t worry, you won’t smell any gayer than I do.” And here’s the thing. It’s remarkably easy not to fret about the marketing of aftershave or “cellulite-busting body scrub.” Really, it is.

I’m reminded of Guardian’s Tanya Gold, whose difficulties with alcoholism, overeating and tobacco were blamed on glossy magazines, pubic waxing and “society’s constant assault on female self-esteem.” Rather than on, say, her own choices and incontinence. At no point did Ms Gold - a grown woman - pause to ask why it is she chooses to care about trivia and be so influenced by it. 

Ms Penny, whose insights have been noted here before, describes herself, at length, as “a socialist, feminist, deviant, reprobate, queer, journalist, aspiring author, freelance copywriter and sometime blogger.” One who “lives with toast-eating pagans in a little house somewhere in London, smoking and drinking and plotting to subtly re-arrange the world to suit her ideals.” When not writing about her own fascinating self, or her mental health issues and how it’s “getting harder to stay angry,” Ms Penny writes for the communist newspaper Morning Star, where she rails against the “encoding of ancient patriarchal assumptions into the economic and social structure of imperial capitalism.”


Peter Risdon notes that while Ms Penny scorns the bikini as having become a vehicle for neurosis, inadequacy and woe, she celebrates the padded bikini bra for 7-year-old girls, who are, we’re told, “negotiating the complex world of adult sexuality.”