“Standing on the corner
Watching all the girls go by…”
— “Standing on the Corner,” The Four Lads, 1956
Although our streak of triple-digit temperatures finally broke on Thursday, here we are nearing the end of July in what is shaping up to be the hottest summer during my 50 years in the San Joaquin Valley. Along with my roses shriveling up and my pond evaporating, I’m slowly recovering from two episodes of sudden limb-drop syndrome that affected my largest (and, presumably, oldest) tree. Unfortunately, the limbs fell across the pond, killing the 13 koi that I’ve had for many years.
To boost my spirits, I looked through the “Column” directory in my computer files to see what I’d written about during previous, slightly less oppressive summers. In the United States (Minnesota and Alaska, excepted), there are usually 100 days or more when we can frolic along the beach while splashing ocean, river, or lake waters on each other. Naturally, we dress appropriately for this activity. On Aug. 4, 2011, I devoted my column to a consideration of the bikini.
An inveterate and unapologetic girl-watcher (regardless of how decadent and politically incorrect that art may have become), I did not write a single word about male body builders in Speedo Band-Aids or the rest of that gender in things that look like burlap bags, gathered at the waist. To the contrary, I cursed Sasha Baron Cohen for posing in a neon lime-green mankini. But, in an earlier column (2006), I promised to write a homage to Brian Hyland, who popularized the “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” a vow that I have yet to fulfill.
In our evolving culture, where it is now considered taboo to tell a woman that she has beautiful eyes, it seems appropriate that I turn my attention to swimwear that is suited to a gender-blind populace. Ergo, this consideration of modest beach attire, generally — but not exclusively — associated with conservative religions.
Some religious movements have advocated modest swimwear in order to encourage young women to be physically attractive without violating tradition or revealing their bodies. My limited research zeroed in on three specific groups: Anabaptists, Mormons, and Muslims.
The Anabaptist religions emerged from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Anabaptists differ from the major denominations because they reject the practice of infant baptism.
Consequently, the rules that apply to adults concerning issues of modesty are different for children, who are not baptized. Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites, although all Anabaptists, vary slightly in religious teaching, but all emphasize the idea that “plain dress” is pleasing to God. Amish and Hutterites, especially, teach that bathing and swimming activities should be separate for men and women.
Children can play and swim together, and many parents allow their young children to wear modern swimsuits. But, as the children mature, they are expected to conform to community standards. For Amish teens, however, there is a period of time — around age 16 — called “rumspringa” (German for “running around”) when boys and girls have more freedom.
After rumspringa, teens are expected to join the church by getting baptized, and from then on they must adhere to the rules that require modesty. Amish women swim in a different location from men, but because they tend to wear long dresses, the activity would be better characterized as wading. Some Mennonite women might wear shorts and T-shirts or even one-piece swimsuits because their churches are the most modern of the sects, at least in some ways.
Steven Nolt, professor of Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, says that “families will sometimes go to the beach but not necessarily swim.” When they do, he notes, women wear their full-length dresses and men wear short-sleeved shirts with button-down collars. So, there is some accommodation to mainstream society, but tradition remains strong among the faithful.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dates back to 1830 when Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon. However, the church’s outlook on society and its rules have been changing since 1890 when the practice of polygyny (a form of polygamy in which one man may marry more than one woman) was abolished.
One element of the religion that has complicated the issue of appropriate swimwear is the practice of those who attend temple ceremonies of wearing an undergarment that covers the shoulders, upper arms, and thighs. However, Handbook 2, section 21.1.42 states that the garments may be removed for swimming. Nevertheless, most Mormons adhere to relatively strict standards of modesty.
Common Consent, a Mormon blog, shows the results of an informal poll of a number of LDS girls’ summer camps. Nearly 87 percent did not allow tank tops or sleeveless tops. About 85 percent prohibited shorts unless they were at least knee length, and, of those, four out of five required Capri-type pants or slacks that were even longer. As expected, 100 percent prohibited bikinis, and most required girls to wear a T-shirt over their swimsuits.
Islamic people have a long tradition of modest dress, especially for women. The Quran instructs: Women “should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof” (24:31). Of course, decisions about what type of swimwear is appropriate was not a problem until fairly recent times for these desert-dwellers. However, with modern modes of travel, new resorts being built in their countries, and the advent of swimming pools, Muslim women have been faced with the choice of entering the water in full burqa, hijab, and chador, and probably drowning, or abstaining completely.
Seizing on a solution to this problem, Mahei Fatourade opened Adabkini in Turkey in 2014. The store specializes in a type of swimwear that is called a burkini, a combination of burqa and bikini, but having absolutely nothing in common with the bikini. His store (as well as others that have entered the market in the past couple of years) sells a swimsuit that is a combination of wet suit, bathing cap, and tunic. It covers everything except the face, hands, and feet. Feet! Oh my; I blushed.
“Brother, you can’t go to jail
For what you’re thinking
Or for the woo look in your eye.
You’re only standing on the corner
Watching all the girls,
Watching all the girls,
Watching all the girls