Why you should care
Because there’s a better way toward gender equality.
By now everyone has seen it: the photo of French police standing over a woman in a headscarf on a beach, ordering her to move or to disrobe. Though the beachgoer wasn’t wearing a burkini, her situation was the result of so-called burkini bans in coastal France and elsewhere. These bans prohibit women from donning the full-coverage swimsuit that’s been interpreted, variously, as a symbol of Muslim extremism, a form of “enslavement” and, of course, just a simple, modest garment that protects one’s skin from the sun and scrutiny, one that a woman has a right to wear wherever she damn pleases.
However, if we accept that governments can regulate swimwear, we’d like to propose a regulation that could actually bring more gender equality into the world: Men, as in France, should be required to wear swim briefs.
Oh, did you think all those old French men were wearing tiny Speedos just for kicks? Yeah, no: Most public pools in France ban any swimwear for men that could pass for streetwear — which rules out those low-slung, baggy board shorts ubiquitous on American beaches. “It’s because of hygiene,” the attendant at the Piscine Aspirant Dunand, in the 14th arrondissement, told my unsuspecting, trunk-wearing husband this summer, before dispatching him to a sad vending machine filled with teeny-tiny boxed Speedos. Who knew the French were such sticklers for cleanliness? Hygiene is the official reason that public pools ban burkinis and going sans swim cap — whether you’re a man or a woman. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told OZY it has no information about the relative hygiene risks of swim garb, but a spokesperson did ask us to remind readers not to go swimming with diarrhea or uncovered open wounds.
Back to the Speedos: There is good reason to mandate them besides “hygiene.” In the summer, Paris’ public pools are a glorious place for guy-watching. Lounging women ogle and judge, as the men, freed of choice and modesty by the pool’s dress code, parade past in eye-catching swimwear. Some even look like Ryan Lochte before his appeal collapsed under the weight of his own broish idiocy. In a reversal of a summer day practically everywhere else, men are openly scrutinized for their physique, and treated, as women routinely are, as something to be looked at rather than someone to be listened to.
To be sure, some men — like, you know, women — don’t want to be freed of that choice. You might say bans on certain types of swimwear, no matter the reason, infringe on our rights to cover up or dress down as we like. And you’d be right: American men would never stand for being told they have to strip down to Speedos, even if it were to keep pools safe. Ergo? French women shouldn’t have to dress uncomfortably because it offends some French ideal of secularism — that still, somehow, manages to make an exception for beach-going nuns.