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