As the controversy over France’s burkini ban continues to rage, many people in other parts of the world could be forgiven for asking: What’s the big deal with covering up at the beach?
In Asia, many women want to make sure their skin stays as light as possible. Whitening skin products are popular, and many women in Japan wear big hats and long clothes — and sometimes special slip-up arm covers, kind of like legwarmers for the upper limbs, so stop sunlight reaching their skin.
This covering-up extends to the beach, where it’s normal to see women in special swimming jackets, complete with thumb holes so they can wear the cuffs all the way down, and leggings made of UV-resistant material. Add a pair of swimming shorts, a big, waterproof hat and sometimes even a face mask, and the look is complete.
These women, many of them more modestly dressed than those wearing a burkini, enjoy the beach along with those in skimpy bikinis — and no one bats an eyelid.
Such get-ups are increasingly common in South Korea, too, where a large number of women are similarly concerned about tanning.
AUSTRALIA AND NEW ZEALAND
In Australia and New Zealand, covering as much of your skin as possible is now the norm, given the thinning layer of ozone above the two countries, which means the sun’s ultraviolet rays are extra harmful here.
Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world, with two of every three Australians set to be diagnosed with skin cancer by age 70, according to the Sun Smart website.
Australia had long run a “slip, slop, slap” campaign to encourage people to cover up, but almost a decade ago it was upgraded to “slip, slop, slap, seek, slide:” The directive to “slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen and slap on a hat” was extended to “seek shade” and “slide on sunglasses.” That means you see lots of people wearing “rashies” and looking like this on Australia’s beaches.
There’s another reason to cover up in Australia: jelly fish. Hence the name “stinger suit” for outfits like this.
In China, where light skin is prized, many women are careful to limit their sun exposure, sticking to the shade, wearing wide-brimmed hats or layering clothing over bathing suits.
In 2014, an entrepreneur in the seaside city of Qingdao made headlines around the world for creating a "facekini" — a stretchy mask designed to shield beachgoers from the sun.
The head covering, which has been compared to the masks worn by Mexican wrestlers, comes in a variety of designs, from pretty pink to dainty floral.
It appears to be quite popular among Qingdao's older swimmers, but has yet to hit the pool-going mainstream.
— Emily Rauhala
In India, women often swim covered at the beach — a nod to modesty in the very traditional culture. It's not unusual to see women at the beach or water park in full sari or salwar kameez, as the long kurta and pants set are called.
It is also not uncommon to find both Indian men and women staring curiously at bikini-clad foreign tourists on the beach here. But upper-class Indian women do wear bikinis in the privacy of their club swimming pools, five-star hotel pools or private hotel beaches. However, that is a minuscule minority.
— Annie Gowen and Rama Lakshmi
Israel might be the test case in the debate over religious attire and swimwear. At least one beach along its Mediterranean coastline is reserved especially for the more religiously observant, Jews or Muslims who want to stay modest but also go for a dip in the sea.
That particular beach sits just north of Tel Aviv’s main drag. Surrounded by a high wall, it offers separate swimming times for men and women. Even there, however, observant women cover every inch of their skin. And the controversial Burkini-style swimwear is also popular for religiously observant Jewish women.
Outside of the segregated area, secular Israeli women — Jews and Arabs — parade the latest lines of swimsuits and bikinis. They are scantily clad, some even topless, to maximize their tanning time. Among them it is not unusual to spot women in a Burkini and, in some places, women wearing a full burqa on the beach.
— Ruth Eglash
There are anomalies about the behavior of Brazilian women on the beach — on one hand, topless is forbidden, not just culturally, but legally, too. On the other, bikinis rather than one-piece swimsuits are ubiquitous, and the principle idea is to show as much of the body as possible.
For Brazilians, the beach is a point of social contact and interaction — beaches are for socializing, playing games like "fresco ball" (played with wooden bats and a small, hard ball) and keepie up with a soccer ball, and, of course, showing off.
Brazilian women start working out to perfect their bikini bodies months before summer begins — this is often called "project bikini." Jewelry, sunglasses, cellphone and a colorful sarong to stretch out on are all accessories no Brazilian beachgoer will do without. Sun visors and baseball caps are also widely used.
The "fio dental" — literally "dental floss," or tiny G-string bikini bottoms, are seen across the beaches of seaside cities like Rio, but not as many Brazilian women wear them as is thought abroad. Bikinis are subject to the currents of fashion and their role is as much about covering up strategic areas as it is to reveal plenty of others. Brazilian women say what is most important is to feel beautiful, attractive and comfortable in their bikini — it’s a fashion item for public display in a culture that takes pride in its physical beauty.
— Dom Phillips
To learn what Afghan women wear to the beach, one would probably have to travel to California or at least Dubai. Afghanistan is a landlocked country with no ocean beaches and a conservative Muslim culture that requires women to dress with extreme modesty; many wear head-to-toe burqas that cover their faces when in public. On weekends, when urban families picnic beside rivers and at lake resorts, women who wade in do so without exposing much more than their ankles.
One could also find out by checking historical archives of a very different Afghanistan that existed just a few decades ago. By the 1970s, the traditional society was liberalizing rapidly and there were hotel pools and public swimming facilities in Kabul. After the communist revolution of 1978, women began wearing short skirts and high heels, but that period of cultural emancipation ended abruptly with the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and stayed underwater through civil war and Taliban rule. Now, after 15 years of tenuous democracy, it is just beginning to reemerge from the deep.
— Pamela Constable