For the past quarter-century, Sports Illustrated has made it a point to keep itspredominantly male readership scrupulously well-informed on the subject of ladies' bathing suits. Last year's special 25th anniversary swimsuit issue ran to 284 pages and sold more than 6-million copies. But - talk about blatant inequity - nobody ever tells women anything about men's bathing suits. All most of us know is what we see on the beach.
And, for many women, that's more than enough. But not because they don't care what men swim in.
They do care, as we found when we surveyed women readers recently, and many have strong feelings on the subject. Judging from the suits showcased in Sports Illustrated, men prefer women's bathing suits to be on the skimpy side. But, according to the results of our admittedly unscientific survey, women's preferences in men's swimwear run in the opposite direction.
One woman's plea - "Keep those Speedos away from me!" - pretty much summed up the majority view. Or, as another woman said, "I hate those little bikini ones that are stretchy, those little skimpy ones."
Other women objected to men's bikinis as "too revealing," "tacky," "sleazy," "indecent," "French," "aggressive," "invasive" and "presumptuous - as if they love their bodies so much women should swoon."
"I can't imagine any man I know looking good in them," one woman in the fortysomething age range said somewhat ruefully. But twentysomething women and thirtysomething women seemed to feel the same way.
"I don't like having to avoid looking at whole portions of someone's anatomy because I'm embarrassed," another said. "Those Speedo-clad young men, you have to stop at the shoulders."
Context makes a difference. A coupleof women said racing suits were fine for swimming laps in pools but not for strolling on beaches. One said they looked okay on the Riviera or in Rio, but not elsewhere. On European beaches, where most men wear bikinis, another said, "You don't see these men as hopelessly preening and egotistical - it's just what they wear." Still another woman found them unobjectionable on men who "have great bodies . . . but not otherwise," and another liked them on "really fine-looking really old men who are in good shape." One said stretch bikinis make sense for 2-year-olds "because they dry faster and don't get so much sand in them." Only two preferred bikinis across the board.
So what - to paraphrase Freud - do women want men to wear on the beach? Most respondents seemed to prefer what one called "the Brooks Brothers look," and what another described as "the traditional cotton boxer-short type." One said "men are sexier" in boxers and another said men who wear them "seem sort of old-fashioned and lovable." But there was no consensus on how these boxer-types should fit. One said "the baggier the better," and another said "baggy to medium-baggy," but some said they shouldn't be baggy, and one or two said they shouldn't be too long. There were several votes for the trim swim trunks lifeguards wear. One young woman voted for 1950s madras
plaids and another turned thumbs down on anything with zebra or tiger stripes.
A few liked jams, the long, loose, tropical-printed shorts worn by surfers and surfer wannabes, but others said they look "kind of dumb" or "cumbersome" or "stupid." One woman said she liked "the Hawaiian ones because they're funny, and there's something so ludicrous about being seen in a bathing suit you should probably play it for laughs." She also said men should always wear the kind of suits that have "little holders inside of them" because "I really don't like to sit down across from somebody - as Sylvia Plath said - whose turkey gizzards are hanging out."
Why do women hate bikinis on men? "It's not because women don't like to see men's bodies," one said. Indeed, several women who decried bikinis said they didn't object at all to seeing men naked, or in bikini underwear, in private. What embarrasses them, apparently, isn't so much what bikinis reveal of a man's physique as of his presumed intent. They seemed to infer that men who wear bikinis - at least on American beaches, where they're in the minority - mean to look sexy. And, the way our culture has things set up, women are
supposed to work at looking sexy, and men aren't - they're allowed to look sexy only unintentionally.
Although it makes women - and probably lots of men, too - uncomfortable when men seem to be borrowing women's culturally assigned role of being physically seductive, at least two women noticed that this double standard creates one more situation where women do all the work and men get to enjoy it. "Men don't feel they have to quit looking at a woman because they can see something in her bathing suit," one noted. And another woman complained that, thanks to the double standard, "far more men look awful on the beach than
"For women," she said, "what's more agonizing than buying a bathing suit? Maybe labor. But at least women try to find a suit that fits. And, if they're not in great shape, they'll wear shorts or a shirt over it. Men don't even look in the mirror. Men don't care. They don't even try to hold their stomachs in. They just go out there and look like walruses, beached walruses."
Patricia McLaughlin has written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Post and Rolling Stone magazine.