The Vagenda

In Praise of the Burkini

What is liberating when it comes to swimwear?Swimwear. It must have been a relief when the voluminous large gowns with weights in began to shrink and become more form fitting, allowing women to move and swim freely. Then the ’40s brought us the revolution of the Bikini. Women’s bodies joyfully on show, free from the repression of being covered up, able to enjoy the beach properly. The sexual revolution of the 1960s meant women were daring to bare more and that beach wear got smaller and smaller. No more being arrested for indecent exposure! All sounds great and liberating right?

Well, maybe. I am VERY pale. I wear Factor 50 and still worry I might burn. I also shave my legs and the other bits society deems are not meant to be hairy, but despite being 32 I’m pretty crap at it and I don’t really want to spend my entire holiday noticing that I missed ANOTHER stray hair on my knee cap. Like an upsetting number of women in the western world (and beyond I am sure) I am not a massive fan of my semi naked body so when wearing a bikini I am pretty much worrying about my stomach, bum and thighs rather than relaxing. OK,  so this is my own issue, and you might argue I should take a tip from Gok and love the skin I’m in, but I don’t have Gok Wan strutting around next to me to whisper ‘go girlfriend’ in my ear and my issues are way too deep to sort out before I hit the beach this summer.

Of course every magazine in the land will soon embark upon a merciless assault on the female of the species to ‘get beach ready’ and ‘get a bikini body in 2 weeks’ whilst showing us pictures of celebrities looking AMAZING in bikinis , for ‘inspiration’ apparently, but also mainly so we can practice our woman on woman envy and hatred. And of course the celebs in bikinis looking AWFUL so we can know how not to look. Rather it just makes me feel panic stricken that if those fine specimens of women apparently look awful, what would the papanazis think of me?! Let us not forget the ‘concern’ for those skeletal celebs who have ‘taken it too far’. Thinspiration masked as concern, my favourite type of abuse rained on women by these magazines…

Now, the obvious first choice is to not give a toss, but as before mentioned this is not so easy and only really part of the issue. Recently I have come across a new and interesting alternative to the dilemmas of feeling good on water front and it shockingly questions all that I have been brought up to believe in. Maybe we don’t have to wear tiny bits of string on the beach at all!

Last summer I was in Java and Bali having a lovely time with my partner. For the occasion I had invested in a 1950s style swimming costume, thinking that it would certainly solve some of the issues mentioned above – much more flattering, more covering – it is also a practical thing, I don’t think hauling bikini bottoms out of my bum every 5 minutes is a good look, or relaxing. However we were due to go surfing and I was really worrying about being burnt. So we ventured into a local department store to try and find something more covering. What happened next actually changed my life. I bought a ‘Muslim surf suit’ or one of those ‘burkinis’ Nigella made famous.


Now I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in god and I don’t like religion. However I am one of those liberal types who despite this would die for the right of someone to believe in a religion rather than have someone else tell them they can’t. I am a feminist and as such I am conflicted about the hijab and the burkha, but I generally come down on the side of choice – so women being made to wear it I don’t like, but I understand that it is complicated and I respect that many women choose to. All of these arguments considered, I see that the ‘burkini’ is a liberating piece of clothing. If I was Muslim it would mean I could enjoy the water where otherwise I might not be able to (this is relevant whether you are choosing to cover up or not). As an atheist with pale skin it meant I could enjoy surfing without fear of being burnt. But the more I wore this item of swimwear the more I realised it was liberating in other ways too. I wasn’t worried about if I had adequately shaved my legs, I didn’t care about my thread veins, I could frolic in the surf with no worries about nipples being on show or bottoms up my bottom. I could sit on the beach for as long as I wanted and not burn and I wasn’t in any way distracted by thoughts of what my stomach was doing. I didn’t feel self-conscious.

I have since become an advocate for the Muslim Surf Suit or ‘Burkini’. Like a true feminist I am still very much for choice – I want the option to wear a string bikini if I want to, but equally I feel like I have suddenly woken up and realised all these years of being told we need to look a certain way on the beach is nonsense! Rather than resenting the time of year again, taking a deep breath and finding a way to cope with it which either involves not caring or looking for someone who looks even worse so that we feel better. Why weren’t we thinking ‘why does being on the beach mean being almost naked?’.

 I know I don’t want to try and tan and many more people who are naturally fairer skinned are realising it is much safer to be pale and interesting or get their tan out of a bottle and those with darker skin need to be aware of skin damage and skin cancer risks too. I’m an active beach goer, I don’t want to sit for hours on the beach reading – I want to play in the water, attempt to surf, body board, throw a ball around. In the past the fear of burning made me have to limit my fun to half an hour but not anymore. I think other women are beginning to see the benefits too. My sister texted me after I told her the joys of my new swimwear ‘Off to the pool with the children, haven’t had time to shave my legs, could do with a Burkini!’.

I’m not saying everyone should burn their bikini or ditch their stylish and well thought out swimsuits, but I am saying just think about it a little while, ask yourself why you’re wearing what you are, what thought processes went on when you purchased it? Are you wearing what you WANT when you’re on the beach and crucially does swim wear you currently own do the job you would want it to – that is maximise the enjoyment of the situation…….Because rather than just taking for granted that it is a freeing thing to wear a bikini on the beach it is important for each individual to ask themselves – what really is liberating when it comes to swimwear?

- NH

9 thoughts on “In Praise of the Burkini

  1. I agree with your point that women should wear what they feel comfortable in, and I appreciate that you don’t want to be judged on how you look when you’re having a good time. However, I would argue that part of the reason you don’t feel comfortable with your near-naked body is because you’ve ingested all that crap about how women ‘should’ look. It’s much easier said than done, but when you’re happy that you don’t need to look a certain way, you’ll maybe be happier with your body and not care that ignorant people may (or probably won’t as they’re too busy worrying about their own appearance!) judge you. I found reading The Beauty Myth really helped me. Best of luck and enjoy your beach time, whatever you wear.

  2. Thanks PaintedAlice. I agree totally and I work ridiculously hard to try and break through all of the beauty crap (The Beauty Myth is on my book shelf waiting to be read after the Female Eunuch, I did a big feminist shop on Amazon!) but it is a hard job to unravel all of the stuff that I’ve taken on over the years and there is no instant cure. But I also think the bikini is part of that beauty myth and one of the reasons why swapping it for something that is actually in many ways much more practical is in itself a positive reaction to being told how we ‘should’ look. I don’t wear my under wear when I’m cycling or at Zumba so why do I need to wear a lycra version of my underwear when I’m at the beach?

  3. This is what I wanted to say but put much better.
    Am ginger and hence wear factor 50 from head to toe, which is a bit of hassle but worth it for the feeling of sun on my nekkid body.
    That feeling is soooooooo lovely.

  4. You’re absolutely right, there is no instant cure. But good on us for a) knowing that a cure is needed and b) being on the way to being cured! Enjoy The Beauty Myth, it really is a life-changing book.

    You’ve got me thinking about the bikini issue, thank you (I like to think). I’d love it if more women felt more comfortable in their clothing. Everyone should have a choice about what they wear and when. As long as the choice NOT to wear a bikini (or whatever item) has not been made because the woman in question feels her body is not up to the ‘standard’ demanded by patriarchal society.

    Of course there is always the naturalist option… Which I have to admit, the further from prepubescent ‘perfection’ I age, the more I embrace!

  5. This is SO GREAT. I’m a 21-year-old size eight so don’t have thread veins and couldn’t care less about shaving my legs… BUT. Bikinis are SO uncomfortable! Worrying all the time about the bottoms falling down or the top coming off after a dive… It’s madness! I wouldn’t go quite as far as a burkini (mainly because I wouldn’t want all the material to stay wet and clingy for so long after I got out of the water) but there is no way one can adequately frolic in the waves in a modern bikini. One piece all the way.

  6. I saw quite a few women on my last holiday flailing around in the water in these- they ain’t streamlined that’s for sure, especially when there are jelly fish in the water to get trapped in all those folds of materials. I’d suggest that burka type swimming costumes aren’t really liberating for those women- except if you want to scratch around like a chicken in the dirt for the positive and argue that at least the women are permitted to visit the beach if they wear one. And that’s a pretty thin argument for them. Snorkeling suits are easy enough to buy if you’re worried about getting burnt- it’s like swimsuit material but the cut of a dive suit with either full legs/arms or half leg/arms. However I’m with PaintedAlice on this one- it’s about the crap we absorb. That first walk for me from the sunbed to the water’s edge was the longest walk of my life. And then I realised that not a single soul was looking at me, not a single person was interested in my stretch marks, my ingrown hairs, my walnut crushing thighs and my thick ankles. Everyone was too busy enjoying their holiday.

  7. isnt it easier to wear a surf suit without religious connotations? And also, saying that hidding all kind of body hair is a way of expressing freedom is…just stupid. Its a contradiction to other article I read here about women and shaving culture.

    Dont say covering all your body is an act of freedom because you precisely say you want to wear it so as to avoid shaving (something society made us believe is necessary). Is asking women to hide their body or some parts of it.

    If someone is pale and wants to wear a surf suit, go for it! they are already out there in the market, you dont need the burka one. I do believe that having to wear the smallest swim suit in the beach because society says so is not good, but burka is the same thing in the opposite direction.

    I seriously doubt that women that wear surf burka are as free as surf girls in the beach, really.

  8. and girls, if you want to surf, swim, jump…do it! you can wear a swim suit, bye bye bikini, who cares if “fashion” says bikini is the trend! you can always switch from one to other too.

  9. I have recently become religious in the Jewish tradition and one of the practices of Orthodoxy is modest dressing. Frankly, I love it and it has liberated my mind and my body tremendously. All this shit about being comfortable and free with our bodies is just a way for society to over sexualize us and make us put our bodies on display ALL THE TIME. Do men who wear long swim trunks and t-shirts at the beach get chastised for being embarrassed or not confident in their bodies? No, they are allowed to cover up and its perfectly reasonable, because they are not the ones on display. Sure, dressing modestly can sometimes be slightly physically constraining, but clearly some other women have already made the point that bikinis can be too. Is the better choice for us all to run around on the beach naked? Most people would say no, because that is crossing the last line of modestly that exists. I’m suggesting that we all think, like the author requested, about why we are really wearing what we are wearing. What is it that you particularly feel comfortable in? I have also begun thinking- and this is a radical statement- that perhaps we shouldn’t all wear so much revealing clothing anyway. Why should we let every random person size us up based on our bodies. The thesis of The Beauty Myth is that women have been conditioned to believe that all of our worth comes from the way we look. Instead of conditioning women that they need to feel comfortable with their body in a bikini, why don’t we work to shift the focus (and people’s eyes) away from our bodies and towards all the other things that make us up by not wearing bikinis in the first place.