In defence of the Burkini: how to make conservative swimwear sexy!
Religious beliefs aside, conservative swimwear is the prerogative of the women who choose to wear it. Turns out, it’s an option that could make some feel more confident, and look sexy as well!long reads Updated: May 08, 2017 19:12 IST
Last year, we decided to take a family vacation to Bali, a place I had daydreamed about since reading the book Eat, Pray, Love with a sort of silent pining for the writerly life of Elizabeth Gilbert.
In my pre-vacation excitement, I Googled all about Bali, while also reaching out to friends for help. Much to my dismay, the girlfriends responded with how I must flaunt a ‘sexy bikini’. Before I left, a bunch of middle-aged ladies in my posh South Delhi parlour talked about getting a bikini wax; according to them, this is imperative on beach vacays.
“I don’t have the body for a bikini. Besides, aren’t bikini waxes blindingly painful? And what’s this pressure to conform?” I snapped.
A woman getting a pedicure leaned in, saying, “I went to Bali for my 50th. All my life, my husband forbade me from wearing a bikini. So I used to preserve cutouts from magazines, drooling over heroines in swimwear, including Sharmila Tagore. She was a real bomb. Bong, like you!”
“My son Monty grew up hearing my mother-in-law and hubby telling me to cover up. So though his girlfriends, school and college mates indulged in pool parties, there was always a different set of rules for a daughter, wife and parent,” she adds.
“I too grew conscious, put on weight and preferred swimming in tights and tees. But things changed when I turned 50. Our kitty decided on a Bali trip, and there we were. Twenty women in designer bikinis…some with transparent palazzo pants, some worn under chiffon capes or with long kaftans. It was a revolution. Bali set us free, beta.”
“How? You were still covering up…still cowering to misogyny.” I cut her short.
The woman met my eyes. “Have you ever felt covering up is more liberating than baring it all? At 50, we were finally comfortable with our bodies. We shunned male control, but at the same time, we wanted to look and feel our best. I wasn’t hiding under my robe; my bikini was as sexy as anyone else’s. I showed what I wished to. The bikini is about balance…a deep, inner harmony.”
As I listened, I thought about the noise made by mayors across 30 French coastal resorts that banned burkinis in 2016. (Burkinis cover the head, torso and limbs like a wetsuit with a hood.) The mayors refused to lift the restrictions, despite the country’s highest administrative court ruling that the bans were a “serious and manifestly illegal violation of fundamental freedoms.”
In the same year, sports goods retail chain, Decathlon, recorded a 70 per cent spike in sale of women’s swimwear after it introduced leg suits, tights and full-sleeved leg suits. Indian women who splashed about in suits with skirt-fronts or T-shirts with tights, were at ease in maillots: sleeveless one-piece swimsuits with high-cut legs.
Was their slow graduation to the bikini a reason to flaunt their well-worked-out bodies? Or was the average Indian woman now customising the bikini to reflect her growing sense of identity – setting free from a cage that labelled any skin show as vulgar and slutty?
Designer Anupama Dayal, a leading name in the resortwear market, speaks of a gradual mindset transformation. “The indoctrination runs deep here, most women want to maintain the ‘good girl’ image,” she says. “When I was married, I too wore the one piece, seeking my husband’s approval. But when I was a divorced 40-year-old travelling to Turkey, I invested in a bikini for the first time. Today, I embrace the sea on my own terms.”
“Even my Australian buyers claim women seek designs where the arms don’t show, so we team a bikini with a cape/robe. ”
Show and tell
Undoubtedly the Indian swimwear market is becoming part of a more vibrant fashion industry, with consumers demanding fit, comfort and value for money, along with more stylish, sexy cuts.
Narresh Kukreja of the designer swimwear/resortwear label Shivan & Narresh says, “The top trend was the one shoulder maillot. It was elegant, provided the right support, and was not too sporty, just right for women across the broad 25-55 years category. In the case of the two-piece, the high-waisted 1960-70 bathing suit is still going strong, as it covers optimally, while showing a little midriff.”
Narresh says different cities exude different sensibilities. Delhi women are conservative about cleavage, cut-outs and bare legs, and less reserved about their bare backs, unlike Mumbai women or those in Chennai, who aren’t afraid of flaunting their curves. Women in Kolkata, known for their sensuality, are comfortable with front and back show, and since they travel abroad frequently the consumption of swimwear there is supposedly soaring.
Narresh blames the standardised American and European sizes, that were earlier available, for taking a toll on the Indian woman’s self-confidence. He also points out how we as a culture have slowly steered away from size-zero worship, with women idol-worshipping Rihanna and Beyoncé, in a generation that thrives on selfies and an innate narcissism.
“Swimwear and lingerie constitute the most shoppable category, and let’s not forget the ₹ 800-crore wedding industry – where swimwear belongs to the honeymoon trousseau,” he adds.
I think of the lady in the beauty parlour and compare her to one of my readers, a 30-year-old, single Muslim woman in Pune, who recently shared a Facebook post on how easy access to modest swimwear on e-commerce sites helped her take up swimming. Sehr, a PR professional, wears knee-length tights and a maillot, taking a dip in the pool minus the awkward stares.
“I’ve worn the burkini and I feel it eases body consciousness. I can swim freely as I’m not obsessed with the thought of how I look. There’s nothing not feminist or non-secular about choosing the burkini,” she says.
As an Indian woman who nurses something of a complex for growing up as a fat child, I ask myself if the acceptance of the bikini is a result of our liberation or our aspirations to fit in?
Whether it stands for change or continuity? Whether I should’ve just got one in Bali and combined it with a kaftan?
I ask myself if the bikini isn’t a straightforward symbol of feminine perfection.
I ask myself if the bikini is a rebellion. Real. Risky.
From HT Brunch, May 7, 2017
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