Nancy Colier
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Do I Have to Wear A Bikini to Be Empowered?

Eavesdropping on public transportation is one of my favorite pastimes. It’s also a great way to study our culture. I recently overheard two 20-something women talk about their summer plans. And, as luck would have it, the topic of conversation while I traveled with them happened to be bikinis. A snippet (from memory):

  • First girl: “So are you going to rock it out, show off your bod in a bikini this summer?”
  • Second girl: “Probably not…not feeling the rockability of my body just now, I need to drop about 10 pounds before I’m ready to rock publicly.”
  • First girl: “Oh, c’mon, you look great. What do you care what other people think, anyway? You rock, girl. And anyway, the best way to say FU to the haters, to not let the Patriarchy control you, is to wear a thong and flaunt it. I say own it, be strong—for all of us women. Wear the itsy-bitsiest bikini you can find and tell them all to F themselves. I’ll send you some links.”

While this may be just one tiny sample of young women’s thinking these days, it made me wonder: When did wearing a bikini become a test of our power, or whether we’re being controlled by patriarchal paradigms?

Our worth has classically been tied to the bikini-readiness of our bodies (whatever that means) and to the hours we’ve been willing to spend in bikini boot camps (and whether that time “paid off”)—the attention we’re willing to devote to making ourselves into a shape and size that’s desirable. And yet, it seems that the criteria for our power and value has now shifted and expanded to include our ability to prove we don’t buy into the messaging, which of course still entails wearing a bikini. Regardless of whether we want to wear a bikini, enjoy or feel comfortable or empowered in this sort of “clothing,” our status as empowered, free, and modern women requires that we offer our bodies up for public view and consumption—to be gazed at—and remain unbothered by cultural judgment, or, if bothered, then to be strong enough to not let it affect the choices we make.

The assumption that every woman wants to wear a bikini, and that the only reason she wouldn’t is because she’s not in the right shape or not willing to confront the patriarchy, is a problem unto itself.

Many women don’t like wearing bikinis because they’re uncomfortable, difficult to swim in, and require a great deal of adjusting/futsing to keep them in place—or they just don’t feel comfortable wearing a bra and underwear in public. The point is, whether we wear or don’t wear a bikini, for whatever reason, need not be a test of our confidence, strength, or willingness to support other women.

Whether our model for female empowerment looks “for” or “against” the male-oriented power structure that limits women is, to some degree, irrelevant. What it means to be a woman, to be empowered, is not something that can be assigned to us; an empowered woman is not one who is defined for or against the powers that be but rather one who decides what it means to be an empowered woman—for herself.

But the question begs: Is it even possible to define ourselves, for ourselves, not in agreement or resistance to the model we know? We’ve been marinated in the same thinking and belief systems as those who created the system; we are also of it. What does it mean to say “I am not your woman” or “I am my own woman”? Is a version of “woman” even possible that’s not defined by or in reaction to our system?

We’ve certainly been offered different models for woman-hood: the long wavy-haired, ever-fertile woman, twirling in her flowing skirt wearing a crown of wildflowers, guided by feminine intuition and bodily-wisdom; the pink-pussy-cap-wearing feminist, her fist raised in rebellion and anger; the scantily-clad, body-exposed “empowered” woman who owns her sexuality, wears it out loud, and rejects whatever it evokes. Other models are offered, but the question remains: What does it mean to define ourselves for ourselves when every other definition is, to some degree, yet another incarnation of control and therefore, disempowerment?

Who are we if we are not your woman? The answer comes down to: What is our truth in this moment? What do we know to be true, in our minds, hearts, and bodies? Defining ourselves, for ourselves, means being willing to trust our truth beyond the image that has been designed for us. It requires reclaiming trust in our own minds, hearts, and bodies, taking up residence once again inside ourselves—the very place we were taught to vacate and never to trust.

Learning to listen to our own insides, the deeper truth that exists inside each one of us, is to be our own woman, and to create a new version of woman-hood that we define for ourselves. So, too, it is the path to a power that cannot be taken away from us by anyone or anything, a power beyond “empowered” or “disempowered.” Ultimately, it is our own truth—known, owned, and trusted—that sets us free from the definitions that have always been written for us.

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