Bikini begone: Conservative modesty at the beach

An article on modest swimsuit options at Screenshot

(RNS) Summer is in full swing. For many of us, that means trips to the pool or the beach to cool off from the summer sun. So what are the options for people — women in particular — whose religion dictates modest dress? Deciding what to wear in the water as a conservative or plain clothes dresser varies by religion, and among individuals within a faith. Here are some of the general rules and practices of some major faiths.

An ad for the LDS Living 2017 Modest Swimsuit Guide. Screenshot

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints provides guidelines regarding swimwear in an official document, “Handbook 2: Administering the Church,” available on the church website. According to the church, adult Mormons are required to wear special garments, a type of underwear that covers the shoulders and upper thigh, at all times after their first temple visit. However, Section 21.1.42 of “Handbook 2” states that the garments may be removed for swimming. Nevertheless, Mormon women are encouraged to buy swimsuits that uphold the church’s general standard of modesty. While this does not mean their suits have to cover as much as the garments would, they are expected to cover midriffs and to wear bottoms with sufficient coverage. This allows Mormon women, if they so choose, to wear fairly modern one-piece suits and tankinis. Some LDS sites, such as LDS Living, publish swimwear guides to help girls find fashionable, modest suits.

Catholic nuns:
Regulations for nuns’ swimwear are far from universal. According to Sister Lorraine from Ask a Catholic Nun, a social media-based forum run by the Daughters of St. Paul, some cloistered nuns never swim at all, while those of other orders may choose to wear fairly modern suits. Although popular culture typically depicts nuns wearing traditional, veiled habits in their day-to-day lives, many no longer do so. As a blog post on the website of A Nun’s Life Ministry explains, a “habit” is technically a “clothing characteristic of a group.” In this case, their habit is general modesty to discourage their bodies’ being seen as sexual objects. “We would dress in a way that would create a climate favorable to chastity,” Sister Lorraine wrote. “What that would entail in a particular case would be up to the good judgment of each sister.”

Burkinis, full-coverage bathing suits, made headlines last summer (and again recently) when they were banned from some beaches in France. This type of suit, however, is an option for Muslim women who want to swim in public while maintaining their standards of dress, short of swimming fully clothed (including veil). Leaving only the face, hands and feet uncovered, the burkini doesn’t provide as much coverage as the many types of head coverings that Muslim women generally wear after puberty. But it conceals the hair in the same way a hijab, or headscarf, would. Burkinis may be some of the most conservative bathing suits, but that doesn’t mean they can’t look trendy. Shops such as Adabkini offer burkinis and semicovered suits in a variety of colors and styles. Mahei Fatourade started the swimwear store Adabkini in 2014 after noticing fashion-forward burkinis in Turkey. He saw the demand right away, as his sales went up by 300 percent in the first year. “Still, it’s growing,” he said. “There’s a huge market.”

A variety of styles available from Adabkini. Screenshot

Amish and Mennonites:
While not all Mennonites avoid modern inventions as the Amish do, members of both these Anabaptist Christian groups are typically expected to partake in “plain dress,” which for women includes wearing long, basic dresses and head coverings for modesty. According to Steven Nolt, a professor of Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, most of these groups “discourage or completely prohibit mixed-gender swimming.” For this reason, they will often swim in more secluded places as opposed to public beaches. Lucinda Miller, a member of a conservative Mennonite group in Wisconsin, explained that it doesn’t matter what she wears in a women-only group. “People might wear a suit and some people might wear shorts and tops or whatever,” she said. “There’s quite a bit of variety.” Also, Nolt said, young children are able to wear more modern swimwear, as they are not yet official members of the church. Older Amish teenagers have more freedom in what they wear too, during the period of rumspringa. Depending on the region and the specific group, Nolt said, families will sometimes go to the beach but not necessarily swim. In this case, he’s seen women wear their full-length dresses and men wear short-sleeved, button-down shirts.

Orthodox Jews:
While some Orthodox movements such as the Hasidim are more conservative than others, Jewish law, or halakhah, generally requires a female’s collarbones, elbows and knees to be covered. A swimwear company catering to these needs, Aqua Modesta, was founded over a decade ago by designer Regine Monavar Omid Tessone, to make halachic bathing suits out of breathable material that dried quickly, like a regular bathing suit. Her company sells swim dresses and swim sets ranging from a girls size 6 to a ladies size 20.

The Aqua Modesta home page. Screenshot

“The idea of the line is to create more modesty,” she said. “Once this modest swimwear came out, there was no more excuse (to wear revealing suits).”

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Madeleine Buckley


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  • A very interesting article. As a male, it may not be considered appropriate for me to comment on the issue, but I applaud the modesty promoted in each of the examples cited. As a man with the largely universal proclivity to be stirred by what I see, I am grateful to women of whatever faith and sect, or none at all, who choose to dress modestly for their own reasons. It is a blessing to me.

  • It’s interesting these religions seek to control what women look like rather than controlling men’s behavior.

  • What do you know of these religions and what they do or do not do about men’s behaviour? Nothing, it would seem, which makes your observation not only merely wrong but deeply ignorant.

    It is interesting how ignorant you are. Perhaps you are an American, which would explain this sort of simple mindedness..

  • Ignorant, simple-minded American? Well, Scott, I AM definitely a proud American–though simple-minded and poorly-spoken at times, and I certainly agree with what our kangaroo brother says here! I’ll take this a little further and say that ALL those religions mentioned in this article need to get over their wrong-headed attempts to cover up and control women’s bodies and actions, and instead, start learning how to honor and celebrate the beauty of human sexuality as a special gift that God created for us!

    Of course BOTH men AND women can misbehave in terms of showing off the sexual attractiveness of their bodies and misusing their sexual gifts–what ESLE is new? But covering up the human body just intensifies the desire by both sexes, to be recognized for this beautiful part of their human endowment, as well as the desire for a spiritual and emotional–as well as a physical–expression of this God-given capacity in their lives.

    Wise up, Scott, regardless of the “more enlightened” country you live in!

  • Exactly, Edward. Of course the usual reaction is sure to come up, as it already has above, to the effect that it isn’t women’s responsibility to help men behave themselves — which is true in a purely legal and secular sense, but of course the opposite is true within the body of Christ where we are all responsible for helping each other “bear our burdens” as Paul put it.

  • Yo, whatevs. How about instead of name calling and asserting I am wrong, you explain HOW EXACTLY you believe I am wrong and why?

    BTW, Mormonism is a religion which is uniquely American in its origin,

  • Why not as a male.. this is all about males controlling the female. Its ok for Trumps wife to be nude.. as Pat Robertson said.. “Pure Art That Shows The Beauty Of God’s Work”

  • Well its the women and the “Homosexuals” that give some men bad thoughts.. so its the womans and the homosexuals fault. Best to keep the lord’s creation hidden away under wraps so no one can see.

  • That’s interesting. Tony Campolo proposed by the same reasoning that gun owners should give up the right to keep and bear arms because people in thrall to violence demons (figuratively, of course) use their right to keep and bear arms to commit mayhem. I do not agree with Campolo, or you, in this matter, but I’m wondering where is the line where giving up one’s rights constitutes a bridge too far, for you?

    It’s interesting to point out that some nudists have said if everyone were nudists, war would be a thing of the past, because without uniforms neither side in a war could tell who was who. While this is certainly limited in universality, it is certainly a valid point. When persons respect other persons, the clothing or lack of same worn by others matters not. Your reasoning appears no different from that of the average rape investigation which blames the victim if her skirt is too short.

  • well they are not sure why things interest them so much.. and give them “funny” or strange feelings.. it can not be their thoughts they had about the woman or the “Homosexuals” that caused them to feel that way. It must be the woman or the “Homosexuals” fault that caused them to feel that way. this way they can try (not very well) not to own those feelings.

  • Why should I make this easy for you? If you want to remedy your ignorance, there is the internet. Find out for yourself what these religions do to control men’s behaviour. So, it isn’t interesting, it is just false that none of them do anything to control men’s behaviour.

  • If you mean men’s lustful behaviors, and controlling behaviors over women, all patriarchical religions do that in some fashion, but the more bourgeios adherents scoff at it. In that sense I agree with you