History of Women’s Swimwear and Body Image Campaigns

Women’s swimsuits, especially the invention of the bikini, have revolutionized women’s social liberation throughout the decades. The history behind women’s bathing suits, and the gender norms they defy is important to characterize in order to comprehend the current human perception of women’s swimwear, and the present idea of body image.

Fast-growing Industry

In 2015, the estimated revenue of the worldwide swimwear industry was $17.6 billion, according to the research firm Global Industry Analysts (Hoevel, 2013). According to Slice Intelligence, the average woman spends $78.21 on an online swimsuit order (Stanton, 2015). In the Slice Intelligence report, 88 percent of those in the market for purchasing a swimsuit online were women. Women were also spending more on one-piece swimsuit during the 2015 season compared to the 2014 season. One-pieces had a revenue of $38 million compared to $23 million in the season prior (Stanton, 2015). In June 2016, Global Industry Analysts predicted the swimwear market will be heading in the direction of active swimwear due to societies growing fondness for water activities such as swimming. Along with this prediction, the research company projects that the desire for fashionable swimwear will be prevalent among consumers. The swimwear market is expected to reach 2.2 billion units valued by 2022, due to the desire for active and fashionable swimwear among consumers (Global Industry Analysts). Women’s swimwear has a lengthy history of modesty and rebellion that has propelled it to the industry it is today.

History of the Bikini

The modern day bikini was debuted on July 5, 1946 when designer Louis Reard hired a Paris showgirl, Micheline Bernardini, to model the risque bikini that took the world by storm (Picone,2015). Not by coincidence, the bikini swimsuit was named after the U.S. atomic testing at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean because of the explosion of controversy that it caused among society (Times Educational Supplement, 2006). The suit was so scandalous that designer Reard described the suit as, “revealing everything about a girl except her mother’s maiden-name” (Times Educational Supplement, 2006). The 1946 bikini was forward thinking and didn’t popularize until years later in the 1950s when Hollywood starlets and actresses began to wear it.

Modesty was a huge factor in women’s swimwear until the 1950s. Women’s swimwear had always been conservative. Swimwear was rooted in showing little to no skin. In the 18th century, ladies were known to sew weights into the hem of their bathing gowns to prevent the garment from floating up and showing their legs (Victoriana, 2016). This extreme was fazed out over time, but women still preferred modesty over fashion. Up until the 1900s, women were still wearing gown like garments to the pool and ocean for recreational activity.

Women’s modesty was so sacred in the 1920s that women were arrested for showing too much skin and breaking swimsuit modesty laws. An article in Police State USA stated,“Rules of the day required that bathing suits have a mandated length; no further than six inches from the knee. Fashion cops trolled the beaches and boardwalks, prepared to use their badges to administer public modesty” (Police State USA, 2014). Women had limited fashion choices and freedom of expression.

Swimwear in Sporting Events

Women’s competitive swimwear was all about coverage in the beginning of the 20th century. At the 1912 Olympics, the 100-meter freestyle was open to women for the first time. Women competing in the event wore heavy, wool suits that almost resembled shapeless dresses covering the shoulders, back and more than half of the thigh. By 1924, swimwear was starting to become more competition worth. The shoulders were less covered and the suit covered less of the thigh and was tighter. Speedo introduced the “Racerback,” the first swimsuit designed to give competitors greater flexibility and enhance speed in the water. Swedish swimmer Arne Borg set a swimming record in 1929 while wearing a Speedo (Hetzler, 2015). Eight years later in 1936, the suit begins to look similar to the most conservative competition suit you can find today. The suit no longer covers the thigh but instead has shallow leg hole openings and less back coverage. “The advent of nylon, Lycra and other man-made materials allowed both competitive and casual swimwear to cling to the body and slice through water more easily than ever before” (Wolfcale, 2014). In 1956, Speedo introduced a nylon line of swimwear for the Olympics that was popular among swimmers (Daily Mail, 2016).

The 1970s fed off of the newly found liberty of expression from the 1960s. The suits in the 1970s became more skimpy with less material being used to make the suits. The two-piece suits dominating the scene were strictly for fashion, and not for competition or activity. But by the 1970s, women’s competition swimwear was enhanced. At the iconic 1976 Olympic games, the print and style were taken under consideration. The United States women’s team sported a red, white and blue star patterned suit. That year, the steroid doping East Germans dominated the Olympics winning nearly every event except the 400-meter free relay, when U.S. swimmer Shirley Babashoff and teammates secured a gold. The suits were faster but still not what they are today. Jumping into the 1990s, swimsuits had 15 percent less drag than suits worn in previous Olympic games (Daily Mail, 2016). Today professional competition suits are knee length with thick straps. The material for these suits promote speed and repel water. “Manufacturers of competitive swimwear look to nature for clues in reducing skin friction and increasing an athlete’s speed as they move through water” (Hetzler, 2015).

Modern Era of Swimwear

Today’s popular swimwear connects the different styles of the last four decades. Limited coverage bikinis and one-pieces are popular today. As well as greater coverage suits for those who want to be modest or have religious  reasons for covering up. Such as the “Burkini” suit that has stirred up quite the controversy in France in contrast to its style. The “Burkini” has been banned in over 15 towns following the recent terrorism unrest in France (Quinn, 2016). The term “fatkini” was established in 2013 by plus-sized fashion blogger Gabi Gregg, proving that bikinis are not just for those that are fit or thin (Hoevel, 2013). Body acceptance and promotion has been a celebrated concept in the 2010s.

False Perception of Beauty

In American culture, the ideal of feminine beauty is a thin body with voluminous curves. A body perception that is unattainable for most women. Media has often told women what to be and how to look by society’s standards. Stemming from the 1890s false beauty standard of the “Gibson Girl,” a concept that was one of the first to represent an unattainable beauty standard in the United States; to the mecca of photoshopped advertisements that plaster television screens and online content (Wood, 2015). Today this standard of false beauty is still prevalent in advertisement campaigns and media.

The bodies of women are often photoshopped sending false body concepts to young girls and women. Women compare their bodies to that of models in Vogue or to advertisements such as Victoria Secret and strive for those unrealistic body goals. “Virtually any comparison that females who self-objectify make between their actual body and this mythic ideal body will produce shame, and body shame in particular. For instance, although only a minority of girls and women in our society are actually overweight, empirical studies report that the majority report feeling fat and ashamed of this failure” (Fredrickson, 1998). Women who feel the effects of body shaming are unlikely to wear or purchase swimwear. In a report, 70 percent of women would rather do unpleasant things such as taxes, visit the dentist or sit in the middle seat of an airplane than buy or wear a swimsuit (Women You Should Know, 2013).

Body Positive Campaigns

In recent years, companies such as Dove and Aerie have increased awareness of body positivity through advertisement campaigns. These campaigns have promoted the use of untouched images to relate to women through natural beauty. Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” surveyed more than 3,000 women and found that only 2 percent considered themselves beautiful (Skene, 2014). From this finding Dove has helped change beauty perceptions among women, as well as increase sales from $2.5 billion before the campaign to $4 billion in 2014 (Skene, 2014).

American Eagle’s clothing brand Aerie launched the “Aerie Real” campaign in 2014; since the launch of the campaign the sales of Aerie grew 20 percent in 2015 (Mosbergen, 2016). The company, like Dove, found that women respond to real women, and had a 32 percent increase in sales for the first fiscal quarter of 2016 (Mosbergen, 2016). Both Dove and Aerie have helped elevate body acceptance and the promotion of untouched imagery in advertising. Women have taken to social media to voice approval for positive body imagery. Social media campaigns such as “Lose Hate, Not Weight” and  “Love Your Body” have taken the social media sphere by storm (Fischer, 2015).

The swimsuit has come a long way from the modest gown of the 19th century. Today, it represents freedom of expression and positive body image. Social media and public relations campaigns such as the “Fatkini” and Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” have spearheaded the promotion of self-acceptance and natural beauty. Body positivity among women is gaining more leverage than ever before and shedding the classic, unattainable beauty norms for the standard, natural woman.


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