The “bikini effect” and why it’s not my problem

I recently saw a video where a young designer is talking about what (supposedly) happens in men’s brains when they see a woman in a bikini, or “the bikini effect,” as she calls it. She says a Princeton study found that as men see a woman in bikini, parts of the brain “related to tools” such as hammers, screws, etc., are activated. It is worth mentioning that these activated parts she’s referring to (see below), are related to a variety of other functions, such as understanding the meaning of words when reading, the process of recognition of known faces, and more.

The designer declares that this information shows “wearing bikinis surely gives women power; the power to inhibit in men the ability to see her as a person, but rather as an object.”

Even if this would have been a valid study with evidence-based conclusions (see below), I refuse to accept that simply by deciding to wear a bikini I am causing men to see me as an object. 

If a man or any person objectifies another, whether it is for reasons related to gender, sex, skin color, social status, economic status, or any other factor, the fault does not lie in the person being objectified. However, I believe that in the case of women and heterosexual men, much of the blame lies in our society and media.

Through advertisements, infomercials, television programs, children’s toys, and even everyday comments, we are constantly being fed information about the “role” of women as beautiful objects that exist primarily for the needs of others.

sexist ad 1

sexist ad 2

sexist ad 3

The problem with these photos is not that these women are wearing “revealing” clothes. The problem is that a woman, or any person for that matter, has nothing to do in an ad for burgers, beer, or any other commercial item. These women are presented as decorative, beautiful objects; not as human beings.

From a very young age, we teach girls about what we expect from them based on their gender. We buy kitchen toys and makeup kits for them, call them “princess” and compliment them on their physical appearance.

On the other hand, we buy building blocks for little boys, dress them up as astronauts and doctors, call them “big guy” and tell them they’re tough and intelligent.

sexist books

If we receive these messages and fail to question the role women occupy in the media, these attitudes become part of our mental vocabulary.

sexist ad 4

Our society wrongly over-sexualizes women. First, through religion, we are characterized as being “pure” creatures by definition, that should uphold the virtue of chastity. We are the forbidden fruit that men, as animalistic and incontrollable sexual beings, will make their prey if we do not watch out for ourselves.

The problem is that women are not purer than men, and men are not animals who are unable to control their sexual desires. I respect men too much to deem them incapable of restraining themselves.

The designer in the video concludes saying that, surely, the “power” that wearing a bikini gives us women is not what we intended. If by this she means our alleged capacity to cause men to objectify us, then no, it is not what we intended.

Let’s consider the case of men wearing revealing clothes. We see nothing wrong with  a man exposing his upper body or wearing a short bathing suit. We do not see him as an object; we see him as a human being who simply decided to wear that garment.

men in revealing swimsuits

Why does the reaction have to change so drastically when we see a woman in similar conditions?

Some years ago, both women and men were required to wear concealing clothes at the beach, and believe it or not, it was even illegal for men to show their nipples.

old bathingsuits

Something occurred along the course of history, that men managed to avoid bring sexualized or objectified when taking their shirt off. Women, shamed even for breastfeeding in public, have not gotten the same advantage.

This is the “power” for which women continue to fight: the benefit of being respected as worthy human beings, without being sexualized and objectified, despite the clothing we choose to wear.

Basing our clothing choices on the outdated and unwarranted desires of some people won’t solve the issue; it would only deprive women of their bodily freedom.

Instead, let’s welcome everyone’s clothing choices. After all, isn’t that the beauty of a free society?

Opposers will just have to learn that we’re all human beings with feelings, goals, and opinions, and we are always worthy of respect, no matter what we’re wearing.

For more feminist and progressive thoughts on women, social justice, and the world which we inhabit, follow the author on twitter: @venezia6 

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* Note: I make use only of the genders “men” and “women” to avoid confusion, since I do not touch upon the topics of gender or sex, and it is addressed to a non-expert audience.

About the study:

This study included only 21 participants, all young, heterosexual men in New Jersey, between the ages of18 and 22 years. This is clearly a rather poor sample from which such loaded conclusions cannot be made, much less generalized to all men, in all places, of all ages, etc.

Nor can it be concluded that simply because the premotor cortex and the posterior middle temporal gyrus have been activated, it has anything to do with tools. More over, it is absurd to conclude that this means men see women in bikinis as objects. These parts of the brain are associated with a thousand other functions, like the contemplation of distance and space, the recognition of familiar faces, accessing the meaning of words when reading, using abstract rules to complete specific tasks, and taking action, among other things.

Using the designer’s faulty reasoning, we could conclude that this part of the brain was activated because the bikinis are associated with the beach, a very active place full of actions to perform, such as playing volleyball, swimming, dancing, etc. It could also be activated precisely because participants were trying to use abstract rules  to answer specific questions. We could invent anything, and make it fit the information found in this experiment. The truth is, we have no real reason to conclude anything about what a participant is thinking or feeling, without expressly asking them. In the psychology world, this fallacy is called ‘reverse inference’: we cannot infer the  emotional or cognitive (thinking) state of a participant, simply by the brain activity they exhibit. 

The media often exaggerates studies’ conclusions, and the responsibility of asking questions and fact-checking rests ultimately on the consumers.

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