Navigating the beach politics of the bikini

2018-08-08 12:30 - Gabi Zietsman
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Young woman posing in a bikini on a Greek beach wi

Navigating the beach politics of the bikini while on holiday in Turkey and Greece. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

Since the dawn of time, men have always had their say on what women can and can't wear - especially when it comes to their attire on the beach.

Women's swimwear has always been, and still is today, a contentious issue. Bikinis used to illicit fines for 'indecency' at various European beaches when they were first introduced, and today the burkini worn by Muslim women has drawn the attention of Western governments who want to quash Islamic visibility. 

Since I was young enough to take control over what I wear, I've always hated wearing full swimsuit costumes.

It always felt somewhat constrictive, was always in the ugliest or plainest colours and cuts (thankfully today that's changed quite dramatically) and would just annoy me in general. Even my primary school swimming team could never convince me to ever wear those black uniform atrocities.

READ: 5 Places where bikinis and other swimwear are banned

Bikinis were the only choice for me, but a small insecurity about my upper thighs meant I would always be wearing boardshorts bottoms with a bikini top to this day - a contradiction I only became extremely aware of when I went on a family holiday adventure through Turkey and Greece eight years ago. 

Turkey was my first experience with a predominantly Muslim country, and while you are acutely aware of women being more covered than they would be back home in South Africa, it never felt oppressive. This 20-year-old walking around in shorts was in her own world, but was at least conscientious enough to have a skirt and scarf in her backpack for visiting mosques and other religious sites.

The only time I felt quite awkward was an attempt at a swim on the beach of Çanakkale, the city near the ruins of Troy. It was peak summer and desperate for some salty relaxation, I headed to the beach with my family, my bikini underneath my clothes.

When I got there, it was predominantly populated by men. The few women that were there were all in their burkinis, or just normal Muslim attire, with few in the water. Assessing the situation, and anticipating the stares I saw in my head that would come my way, I ended up never going for that swim. My mom told me it's okay, when we're in Greece (the next leg of our journey) I can swim as much as I want.

QUICK GUIDE TO TURKEY: Easy eVisa travel for South Africans

When we arrived on Rhodos Island, our first step into the Greek life, the stark contrast between the two countries just hits you in the face. Greece was at that time going through the height of its economic crash, and you could see the frustration with the situation in the demeanor of its people. My attention, however was solely focused on taking my first swim in the Mediterranean Sea, but the placid waves of the beach we went to was extremely boring, especially when you're used to some of the monster waves on the South African coast.

Young woman posing in a bikini on a Greek beach wi

Twenty-year-old me striking a pose on a beach in Rhodos Island. (Photo: Gabi Zietsman)

At least I didn't have to worry about my beach attire so much. That is until we arrived in the party island of Mykonos.

Being on a family holiday on an island known for its club scene is not the best idea, and you should really read up a bit more before going to one of its most popular tan spots - Paradise Beach. We never realised it was a nudist beach, but my mother's Dutch roots were coming out and she went on a tirade about how prudish South Africans are. Again I was in my usual bikini and boardshorts combo, but instead of feeling exposed like in Turkey, I felt like I had pitched up in a wetsuit. 

QUICK GUIDE TO GREECE: Fun under the Mediterranean sun

My brother was obviously enjoying life as a group of young Italians were tanning topless next to us, while I was trying very hard to keep my gaze at eye-level at all times. Even the people who weren't baring all had tiny bikinis on - not one person was wearing boardshorts. 

In the space of three weeks, I went from feeling like a stripper to a nun, and it is something I still think about whenever I head down to the beach. I still refuse to wear a one-piece, will never go swimming without boardshorts and while it may be contradictory, at least it's still my choice to be like that - and should be every women's choice around the world.

Most official patriarchal laws may have seen their end with the rise of gender equality, but societal and cultural pressures will still throw you many hurdles when trying to navigate the beach politics of the bikini.

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