G-strings at the pool: Quaint debate or moral panic?

5 days ago
G-string bikini ban
Wait, what happened?

In case you missed it, g-string swimwear has been making headlines this week.

They’re the subject of a petition from New Plymouth woman Amy Dixon; she wants the council to ban what she calls a “pornographic” cut of swimwear from public pools.

Her reasoning is personal, with Dixon feeling “frustration” at seeing girls in g-string bikinis.

“I don’t want to seem like an overbearing mum, but there hasn’t been a space where my boys can enjoy themselves without having to be on alert, avoid places or look away.”

While Todd Energy Aquatic Centre operations manager Mike Roberts told Stuff he was open to change, New Plymouth District Council clarified to RNZ that it will not be changing its rules around swimwear at public pools.

Why all the fuss?

While on the surface this issue is about skimpy swimwear, dive a little deeper and wider tensions seem to be at play: gender, age, morals.

“There’s people who are not that comfortable with the girls at the beach,” Dixon told RNZ. “We don’t go prancing around with our bums out and other families might feel the same about that.”

Who gets to decide when a body is sexualised? And by choosing to wear a g-string bikini, does its wearer relinquish any right to complain if they are?

It’s a conundrum, giving us a chance to consider and discuss the parameters around presenting our sexuality in society, and whether there is a place for exhibitionism in public life.

This complaint isn’t without precedent, and the very nature of bathing makes behaviour around the activity ripe for social judgment. We’re relaxed, but also vulnerable - rarely being so unclothed in the company of others.

READ: Midlife women feel more comfortable in a bikini now than they ever did their 20s

Swimming often takes place in a public place, such as a beach, lake or pool, and expected behaviour is governed by everything from rules to the social contract.

Unless you have a private pool, swimming is a collective activity that puts us in proximity with other people, sharing a space and accepting a range of behaviour, and judging what’s not appropriate, with restrictions around manus, food and running often making the list of pool rules.

There’s also a general acceptance of what is appropriate attire: speedos, rash vests and bikinis are fine, but don’t dive in wearing a dirty T-shirt or jeans.

Like most of what we wear, swimsuits have evolved over time – responding to fashion trends and technical innovations, as well as pushing boundaries of what’s acceptable - and how we feel about it has had to change with it.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is

G-string bikinis made for splashy headlines a few years ago.

In 2020 several Taupō mothers told the Herald about their discomfort at the g-string bikinis being worn at a local swimming spot, with community debate ensuing. Across the ditch, a water park in Perth banned thongs and skimpy bikini bottoms in 2019, asking visitors to wear “appropriate” swimwear. They’ve been contentious out of the water too; earlier this year Olympic equestrian Shane Rose was stood down by Equestrian Australia for wearing a thong-style “mankini” at a showjumping event in NSW.

Public interactions are, of course, ripe fodder for social media, and public g-string politics is its own genre of viral content. A 2020 Facebook video showed a woman being handcuffed at a South Carolina beach after someone reported her g-string bikini to the police; while in 2021 an Australian influencer posted to TikTok about a woman criticising her “inappropriate attire”.

The debate has even established a place in New Zealand’s pop culture canon. Social conventions around swimwear were rendered succinctly in Tip Top’s famous “undies, undies, togs” advertisement in 2006.

But long before those speedos crossed the road, we were been debating as a nation what’s appropriate attire for the beach and pool. Acting as a barometer of social change, swimwear has a lengthy history – as it has simultaneously shrunk – of public complaint and media outrage.

There’s a whole chapter devoted to Kiwis changing attitudes around public decency in Looking Flash: Clothing In Aotearoa. “The unbearable scandal of shrinking swimwear was an enduring story in 20th century New Zealand,” writes Caroline Daley, and debates mirrored what was happening overseas.

In the 1900s most councils had strict regulations around swimwear, and bodies had to be covered when out of the water – the Herald wrote about the “scanty attire” of men bathing at Onehunga wharf – but society wasn’t as puritanical as we often assume and attitudes changed. “Everywhere swimmers challenged such regulations, and in most places they succeeded in changing beach-going, and eventually the bylaws.” Legs crept higher and necklines dropped. “Even before the Great War beach-goers were seeing how much give here was in bathing bylaws”.

Suits shrank over the 20th century, but their power did not. “An unbearable scandal to some, many down on the beach bore up under the glare of sun and public scrutiny,” writes Daley, as Kiwis enjoyed the social power of peacocking. They enjoyed “sashaying down the sands in the latest summer swimmer”.

The rise of the thong

G-strings rose in the public sphere throughout the last century. Titillating in the stage shows of the 1920s, the term g-string appeared in Variety magazine a decade later, and by the end of the 1990s the underwear was easy to find at retailers. It was practical: as our clothes got tighter, it offered a solution to visible panty lines. G-strings made sense on the beach too, allowing a tan closer to full coverage.

Visible thong underwear became a fashion trend by the early 2000s, with the “whale tail” popularised by famous young women like Christina Aguilera and, in tandem with low-rise pants, became a not uncommon sight. An act of rebellion, making visible something normally hidden, the whale tail made a statement, typifying the overt sexuality and raunch culture of the era, before receding.

Due to the cyclical nature of trends, it’s re-emerged in recent years with the vogue for noughties fashion, alongside a culture that feels more unabashedly sexy.

Barely there bikinis are a fixture on Love Island, the Kardashians are fans, as are Lizzo and Lady Gaga.

Thong swimwear enjoyed a marked rise; adopted, popularised and normalised as acceptable. In January this year The Spinoff’s Gabi Lardies wondered why all bikini bottoms seemed to be thongs now. “Smaller and smaller bikini bottoms have been creeping their way onto local bums and beaches.” And a trip to the shops was devoid of alternatives to “cheeky”, “French” or “Brazilian” cuts.

As the cut has become embraced as swimwear, its appearance in public spaces has recontextualised something associated intimacy and, for some, the taboo.

It challenges the social contract - things we agree are acceptable behaviour - and personal beliefs around morals and values. A response is hard to resist.

Is this a big deal - could togs be our next moral panic?

As far as water cooler chats and dinner table debates go, this is a good one. The stakes are pretty low, but it also acts as a vessel for wide concepts are around bodily autonomy, value judgments, personal freedom and, of course, sex and gender.

As societal standards have relaxed, it’s been a while since we’ve had moral outrage around garments. Headlines around indecency have been mostly limited to sheer celebrity outfits.

The g-string-at-the-pool debate has a distinctly local flavour: are we a conservative little country, or are our family values declining like the economy?

This media cycle has seen most major outlets weigh in, and Ensemble’s Tyson Beckett has a helpful round-up of togs for those wanting to “provoke the pearl clutchers”.

Is this really about the swimsuits, or ongoing negotiation of the social contract. Do we still value modesty?

Outrage could be a manifestation of our sense of control and duty as parents; should children be protected from the sight of a bottom in a thong bikini?

Is it about sexualisation and self-confidence, and how we respond to those things being explored by others in plain sight?

Are age and desirability at play, all that the social competition we’ve internalised? Appraisal is part of human nature.

Cultural conventions aren’t insignificant, and as a mixed nation navigating common ground, there are going to be awkward conversations that don’t necessarily have a resolution.

G-strings aren’t the only garment racing restriction. Some French districts have banned full-body swimwear at public pools; in 2022 the city of Grenoble green-lit both burkinis and topless bathing.

There’s a tension between freedom and surveillance, both of which have heightened significance in 2024. Can you go for a swim in some cheeky togs without ending up on the internet?

Emma Gleason is the New Zealand Herald’s lifestyle and entertainment deputy editor. Based in Auckland, she covers culture and media.

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