Close your eyes and go on a mental vacation with me for moment. You’re standing on a beach. The sunshine is beating down, warming your face and summoning beads of sweat. You feel wet sand molding in between your toes as the slightest bite of cold saltwater touches your feet. Waves are crashing. Seagulls are squawking. You see children running around building sandcastles while adults wade through the tide. There’s a man in board shorts, a woman covered from head to toe in what looks like a wetsuit with a hood.
Did I catch you off guard with that last one? You were probably expecting to see a scantily clad woman in a bikini, not someone fully covered.When we think of swimsuits, society has engrained a specific image in our minds that makes a woman’s body look a certain way. Right now, there is a controversy in France about some swimwear that is very different.
A burkini is an article of swimwear designed for Muslim women who want to maintain modesty while swimming or visiting a beach. Instead of the revealing bikinis society
expects women to wear, this garment acts as the opposite and covers the female form.
A town in southern France called Villeneuve-Loubet banned burkinis because they the swimsuit apparently “overtly manifests adherence to a religion at a time when France and places of worship are the target of terrorist attacks.”
The ban was overturned in a high court, but according to a New York Times article, the debate reverberated around the world. Why would a piece of swim
wear really cause such a stir? There are so many things more connected to terrorism, ISIS and extremism than a bathing suit. One answer is the basic Islamaphobia many Westerners are experiencing right now, but this also can be traced back to policing the female body.
Essentially, policing the female body means that society has an institutional idea of how people, in this case women, are and are not allowed to look. Women are highly sexualized in our society, and how a woman presents her body is harshly judged based on that objectification.
So, a woman wearing a burkini is immediately judged as abnormal, submissive, a prude and controlled. We don’t know anything about that woman and her personal life except that she has chosen to wear the swimsuit for some reason. But, because she is not providing the sexualized norm that we have grown accustomed to, there is something wrong.
This doesn’t stop at the burkini. Let’s say that woman decided to wear a regular, mainstream bikini. There is still a high possibility that she will be judged and criticized for the way her body looks (that can depend on her age, weight, height or really anything).
So yes, Islamaphobia does contribute to this specific instance, but in general women’s bodies and clothing are policed because of being sexualized and objectified. Next time you hear someone say: “She shouldn’t be wearing that,” think about why. This could be your answer.