Never Mind the Burkini: Israelis Reluctant to Ditch Bikinis

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A woman in a burkini, or full-body swimsuit designed for Muslim women and another in more revealing swimwear on August 16, 2016, at a beach northeast of Tunis.
A woman in a burkini, or full-body swimsuit designed for Muslim women and another in more revealing swimwear on August 16, 2016, at a beach northeast of Tunis.Credit: Fethi Belaid/AFP

At the end of August, which for many people worldwide marked the end of the swimming season, Britain's The Guardian featured a rather declarative headline: “The bikini is old-fashioned – no wonder it’s dying.”

According to the figures presented in the article, along with the blatant absence of the bikini from traditional seasonal fashion collections, this year British chain stores reported an increase in the sales of one-piece bathing suits ranging from 30 percent at Selfridges to 65 percent sold by means of the popular website Figleaves. As early as last year, France's business press reported on a continuing rise in the sales of one-piece swimwear.

According to The Guardian, “In the wake of the burkini controversy, it would be easy to pin the demise of the bikini as collateral damage in the culture war currently being fought on Europe’s beaches. But while it is temptingly neat to plot the bikini’s fall as a status symbol against the rise of modesty wear as a political issue, the reality is not that simple.

Police enforcing a ban on the burkini hovering by woman on Nice beach as she removes a tunic, August 24, 2016.Credit: BESTIMAGE

“The problem is not that the bikini is too sexy for 2016. The problem is that the bikini represents a wholesome, respectable, entirely non-controversial level of sex appeal which simply no longer exists. This is not just about politics. It is about how the internet’s easy access to never-ending nudity rendered the bikini anachronistic. And it is also about the escalation of hostilities in the field of body image, and how the very phrase ‘bikini body’ has become controversial, representing an ideal we love to hate.”

But Israel is apparently in no hurry to end the swimming season – or bury the bikini.

Bikini-wearers at a Tel Aviv beach, September 2016.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“In the local market we haven’t seen any trend marking a change in the purchase of swimsuits,” says the CEO of the Gottex Group, Ron Grundland, adding that this season the demand for bikinis actually increased, perhaps thanks to the new styles and colors available. Despite a renewed interest by young women in the one-piece suit, due to recent trends, he notes, in Israel it’s still a relatively negligible phenomenon. In fact, an analysis of the veteran swimwear maker’s sales indicates that even older women are not afraid of skimpy bikinis.

“In fact, with respect to the brands that are considered to be more mature, about 60 percent buy one-piecers and about 40 percent buy bikini styles,” says Grunland.

“Those who joined bikini purchases this season are older women, full-bodied women, and women with large bra-cup sizes. It’s premature to worry about the bikini, which enjoys a large market share that increases from year to year,” he adds.

Shlomi Vazana, owner of Alle Swimwear, agrees with Grunland. “The bikini is here to stay,” he declares.

Regarding the assertion by The Guardian that the bikini has become outdated, Vazana says: “This is a product that is constantly being renewed and undergoing changes. Once there was a style with an exposed shoulder, once there was one with a padded bra. These innovations prevent it from becoming obsolete.”

A Muslim woman wears a burkini, a swimsuit that leaves only the face, hands and feet exposed, on a beach in Marseille, France, August 17, 2016.Credit: Reuters via Stringer

While data regarding sales of Alle Swimwear differ somewhat from those of Gottex, there is still no room for doubt.

“Today something like 60 percent of the models sold are bikinis,” Vazana says, adding that he actually senses more daring among his customers in recent years.

“On the one hand there are young women today who ask for one-piecers, but on the other there are also women who wear large sizes who used to be more hesitant and now ask for more daring styles.”

A random visit last week to the Geula Beach in Tel Aviv revealed an even more extreme picture. Of all the female swimmers, only one was wearing a one-piece swimsuit.

“I think that the international trend of one-piece swimsuits is temporary,” says Nofar Tahari, 24, of Mevasseret Zion outside Jerusalem."It will pass.” Her girlfriend, Adi Wittenson, 25, of Be’er Sheva, adds: “I love the bikini. I think it’s here to stay.”

Increased daring

In 2012 the Israel Democracy Institute and the Avi Chai Foundation published a survey showing that only 43 percent of the Jews in Israel define themselves as secular – a decline of about 3 percent from the previous decade. The survey was conducted three times in the past 20 years, and indicated a strengthening of religious faith and a decline in a commitment to democratic values.

The data also indicated a stronger connection to religious faith and customs. Among other things, they showed that 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe in the existence of God, 70 percent believe that the Jews are the chosen people, 69 percent believe that the Torah and the commandments are of divine origin, and 60 percent believe in life after death.

In light of this conservatism, it’s particularly interesting to see the increased daring in Israel when it comes to other realms, and as compared to the opposite trend in ostensibly more liberal England.

“Conservatism today does not exist in the old style that dictates modesty, but serves a very specific type of national discourse,” explains Dr. Roni Halpern, a lecturer in the gender studies program at Tel Aviv University. But, according to Halpern, conservatism stops at the beaches.

“Think of all the new immigrants from France, who in some senses adhere to tradition, but crowd the beaches and wear swimsuits without batting an eye,” she says.

At the same time, Halpern cites recent figures that indicate an increase in the percentage of older and full-bodied Israeli women who buy bikinis. She says finds hints of this tendency in what she calls the feminist revolution of recent years. “Not necessarily the one taking place in well-written books, but the one on the social networks,” she clarifies. “The revolution that identifies the power of the online networks that sell dresses up to size 42 and have aroused an uproar. The same revolution can also understand the power of the bikini.”

Halpern claims that the same feminine-feminist discussion that has developed on the social networks has given rise to radical reactions.

“According to those strategies, the way to confront the problem is to wear those clothes, even the short and tight-fitting dresses that don’t suit a certain body type. That’s a way to protest even if I’m too full-bodied or too old. A way to wear an item of clothing that presumably limits your options – and to explode it from within,” says Halpern.

To understand the extent of the change whereby more and more women of different sizes are wearing a bikini today, you have to understand its status when it first appeared on the fashion scene. That moment when the bikini erupted into Israeli culture in the 20th century, Halpern says, represented an image of a certain type of sex appeal.

“I am thinking about the sexiness of a James Bond girl and women at the Saint Tropez beach after the war [World War II]." she says. "In many senses, the bikini serves many ideas concerning freedom and women’s sexual 'sovereignty' over their bodies.”

But at the same time, the sexual "celebration" began to serve as a two-edged sword.

Halpern: “That was also the same period in which the objectification of women reached a peak with the Playboy bunnies and the representation of women in the media, which created a very rigid model that worked in a very oppressive manner – if you didn’t meet the criteria, you felt really bad and didn’t go to the beach. Starting in the 1950s and the '60s, the bikini and other accessories for the female body occupy this dual space of liberation and oppression.”

'I'll do what I want'

In July, Haaretz published an interview with Dr. Dahlia Rachman-Moore, dean of the School of Behavioral Sciences at the College of Management-Academic Studies in Rishon Letzion, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the bikini. Moore, who specializes in feminism, said at the time that, “On the one hand, in wearing the bikini, the female body is used in order to 'challenge the masculine eye. On the other hand, it’s also a matter of, ‘I’ll do what I want and the way I want to.’”

The truth is somewhere in the middle: “I don’t know which [element] is stronger,” Rachman-Moore says. "It’s possible that among women with awareness there’s more free choice, whereas young women tend to care less [about various phenomena around them]. In general, they try more to be appealing and to attract attention.”

Rachman-Moore’s words resonate particularly in light of another, different fashion trend that's taking hold in the country and elsewhere: an interest in modest swimsuits that are suited to both the Jewish and the Muslim religious sectors. According to an article published this week on the Business of Fashion website, this trend began after the burkini protest in France that made headlines this summer.

Marci Rapp, a manufacturer of modest swimsuits who started Israel's MarSea brand, claims that there has mostly been an increase in the awareness of these new swimwear styles, due to the media uproar.

“But it’s still too early to talk about rise in sales,” Rapp says, noting that the burkini furor began toward the end of the swimming season in most parts of the world. However, she adds that in the past she used to distribute flyers to women whom she saw swimming in modest dresses, while today they come to her.

“I even have devout Christian customers from the United States who order from my website,” she adds.

According to Jenny Kuba, co-executive director and owner of Jack Kuba Lingerie, it’s a mistake to compare England and Israel. “Although we’re seeing a sharp increase in the sales of one-piece swimsuits, eulogizing the bikini is premature,” she says, adding in conclusion, “In Israel the bikini will never die for one simple reason – we’re a seaside country.”

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