Reviews > Culture

Bathing suits or birthday suits?

Culture | Teenage girls try to explain why they "wear" what they wear at the beach

Issue: "Troops hunt for weapons," June 14, 2003

BOOKS WITH TITLES LIKE WHATever Happened to Sin? deal with cosmic issues. With summer approaching and many of us about to spend time on beaches or at swimming pools, here's a more modest question: Whatever happened to modesty? Or, to be precise: Why are many women willing to be seen at the beach or swimming pool in less clothing than their normal underwear?

Meagan Ellison, 16, is trying on bikinis at the Alvin's Island beach store on the Gulf Coast beach strip at Orange Beach, Ala. Her grandmother, Betty Ellison, is trying also-trying to exercise patience as she waits outside the dressing room door.

"I guess I'm just old-fashioned," she complains to the air, as she watches Meagan enter the dressing room to try on a few scraps of cloth that pass for "swimwear" these days.

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As Meagan, who attends a Christian high school, changes into yet another bikini in the store's gender-neutral changing rooms, Betty processes her frustration to WORLD. "I think that what they wear today is indecent," she said. "Perhaps it's just my age. But I think they show too much of themselves."

Two other women-Meagan's aunt and cousin-giggle at Betty's candor. "They call them bathing suits," she adds, "but it's less than what they wear for underwear."

Indeed, when Meagan emerges, her dress resembles a bikini version of Eden's fig leaves, except that unlike the Renaissance paintings of Eve wincing in shame at her scant leafy covering, Meagan seems eager to discern whether her relatives believe this is the "right" bikini-three patches of cloth held together by strings-that most flatters her.

Why do you want to wear something like this in public, WORLD asked. "Go on!" Betty goads, eager to hear her granddaughter's rationale, "Answer him."

"I get a better tan line?" Meagan replies, her voice rising as if she's asking a question rather than answering one. Then she says, "You want to look nice for the opposite sex. It's kind of a competitive thing." That competition was also evident on the beach, where-following careful and very wise instructions by WORLD editors-my wife accompanied me as I approached three young ladies adorned much as Meagan was.

After explaining to the young ladies who we were, and that we were doing a story on beachwear, the three young ladies seemed very excited to be included. They gave their names and ages-13, 14, and 14-and forthrightly addressed the question: Why are you willing to wear scantier clothes in public at the beach or pool than your daily underwear?

"Because I don't feel like anyone would bother you here, I guess," one replies, an answer that prompts the question: "Would someone bother you if you wore your bikinis to school?" The three teen girls laugh at the thought: "We'd be suspended!" To a follow-up question-"What do you think boys are thinking when they look at you in your bikinis?"-one of the threesome replies with reluctant candor: "They are probably trying to figure out what we look like underneath."

Shortly after this interview, the parents of one of the girls approach my wife and me and accuse us of being "pervert[s]" for asking the children such questions. This, of course, raises another question: If the WORLD reporter and his godly wife are perverts for asking obvious questions, what does that make these parents-consenting exhibitionists?

But heading down the beach, we encountered a youth group from Peace Reformed Church in Middleville, Mich. Youth minister Nate Archer and a staff of several men and women brought 36 teens to the beach for a mix of fun in the sun and daily meetings for worship and teaching. Mr. Archer said that he doesn't want to have either the young ladies or young men clothed on the beach in a fashion that compromises the very goal of the trip-pointing the youth toward God rather than toward their own lusts.

"It would be great just to tell them to wear big, giant, snowmobile suits like people used to wear at the beach in the 1920s," Mr. Archer laughed. "Yet pretty much anything less than that is going to cause someone to stumble. The challenge is, How do we incorporate the world's standards into our expectations ... for accomplishing real discipleship?" Later, the youth group discusses this issue. Eleven of the 13 girls on the trip say they wear bikinis on the beach or at the pool, and five (in a secret poll) said they picked their swimwear in hopes of looking sexy for the guys on the trip.

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