Ultimate Coverup

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 14, 2006

The makers of WholesomeWear swimsuits would like women to cover up their tummies. And their backs. And their arms. And half their legs. The Oregon company, based outside Portland, sells a collection of swimwear online that consists of a wet suit topped by a dress. The spandex underpinning is not sufficient on its own because bystanders would still be able to make out the curves of the woman's body. The nylon overdress takes care of any audacious display of an hourglass shape.

The collection is not aimed at practitioners of any specific religion. There is no obvious mention of spirituality, God, Allah or Joseph Smith on the company's Web site.

"There are still people in this world who prefer modesty," says Joan Ferguson, who handles sales for the company. "So my son, his wife and daughter designed the product."

The company has found a following among older women who like to wear the suits for water aerobics, larger women who prefer more coverage poolside and women whose husbands like to act as fashion consultants.

"I'm very surprised at the men who call because they don't want their wives and daughters running around in their underwear," Ferguson says.

WholesomeWear is going into its fifth year and, according to Ferguson, has sold thousands of swimsuits in three styles: culotte, skirted and "slimming," which looks like a loose-fitting housedress. There is an option with the slimming suit to extend the sleeves below the elbows and to lower the hem so it ends just above the ankles. A woman would be swimming in something akin to a choir robe. "These are designed to highlight the face and not the body," Ferguson says. That may be true, but a woman is more than just a disembodied head. Why be fearful of the rest of her?

The company may not be preaching to a specific denomination, but it is nonetheless preaching. Ferguson describes her family as "Christian people who love the Lord." And the swimsuits are "a ministry."

It is hard to look at the prim swimwear -- $89 retail -- and not feel as though the company is cranking back the clock to the 1920s. All that fabric denies women the sense of liberation that comes with the freedom to celebrate the body. (The company offers swimsuits only for women and girls. There are no alternatives for a man who is gun-shy of surf shorts.)

It's understandable that some men and women may feel frustrated and scandalized in a culture that accommodates micro-miniskirts, cropped halter tops and visible thongs. They want someone to stand up and say, "Put some clothes on, darn it!" But surely, in the search for modesty, wouldn't one stumble across something decent and virtuous before getting all the way to a nylon shroud? Wouldn't a demure tankini do? Or a one-piece with a matching skirt?

One can't help but consider these body-cloaking suits in the context of July marking the 60th anniversary of the modern bikini, named after the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific where the United States tested an atomic bomb. A thrifty person could outfit an entire sorority in bikinis from the fabric in one WholesomeWear slimming suit. To celebrate this milestone in bikini history, there have been countless how-to stories about the best way to wear these teeny-weeny swimsuits. Assouline published "The Bikini Book," a photo history that opens with a testimonial by author Kelly Killoren Bensimon in which she shares the news that as a thirty-something mother of two daughters she feels more comfortable in a bikini than any other article of clothing. (That comment leaves one with the suspicion that she is either lying or has a financial stake in Speedo.)

When bikinis were first introduced, they were scandalous, but over time they have become less so. One-piece suits have been redesigned so that some of them, with their cut-outs and strategically placed adornments, are more risque than the average bikini. Still, the bikini is forever associated with a woman's willingness to flaunt her body, to strut her confidence, to revel in her sex appeal. There is liberation -- of far more than just the bellybutton -- in a bikini.

Ferguson says her company isn't on a mission to un-liberate women. "Absolutely not. If people want to buy our suits we're thrilled, but they certainly don't have to," Ferguson says. A person has to have strong convictions "to wear our suits," she says. If you have those convictions, "you're not going to care about the liberation or if you get persecuted and made fun of."

WholesomeWear may appeal to certain people of faith, but it also raises many lamentable body issues with which women grapple. Most women dread buying a swimsuit. The occasion is fraught with irrational feelings of inadequacy. Women often joke that they would wear a muumuu to the beach if they could. The truth is there's nothing to stop them from doing just that. But they know the cure for their insecurity is to let go of cultural expectations and their own skewed self-image. The answer is not to hide the body but to cheer for its ability to swim laps or just sedately float -- in a bit of form-fitting, aerodynamic nylon and Lycra. That's not immodesty; that's confidence.

In the past, the woman on the beach wearing a bikini was the aberration, the spectacle. But now, a woman in a bikini is commonplace. She spans all ages. And there is something especially compelling about an older woman wearing a two-piece swimsuit, not necessarily to display her curves but to underscore her strength.

A woman swaddled in WholesomeWear's knee-length nylon would stand out. Not just because she's covered up but because she's done it in such an unattractive way. Perhaps she is modest or religious or simply someone who really needs to get over the fact she doesn't have legs like Naomi Campbell. But in looking at all that camouflaging fabric, at the layers aimed at obscuring the physique, one wonders how a swimsuit "ministry" can save anyone's soul when such ungainly suits have so little appreciation for beauty.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company