Gender Bias and Wedgies
In the early years of my adulthood I took a trip to the beach with my cousin Audrey. We bought a
cheap surfboard and strapped it to the top of the Subaru and made our way to a little family owned waterfront motel in Rodanthe, North Carolina. We didn’t know how to surf, but we climbed over the dunes and slammed straight into the breakers, paddling hard and nosing the board down into the churn as the current dragged and grabbed at us, determined to learn. Knowing we’d be getting worked by waves in the grey, roiling, undoubtedly shark infested sea, we wore board shorts over our bathing suits. We didn’t want to be expelled by the breaking waves onto the shore with our bathing suits jammed deep into crevices, indecently exposed to meandering beach combers. Women’s bathing suits are not well-suited to surfing poorly.
This story is not about the fact that we really had no success surfing and that it’s really hard and uses muscles we didn’t know even existed. It isn’t about how much sand can build up in the crotch of a one piece, even under a pair of guy’s swim trunks. It’s about finding swim attire that made me, at long last, feel comfortable. I was finally myself in beach wear. Indeed I was in men’s shorts. Somehow women drew the short straw on socially acceptable beach clothing (and shoes, and dress wear, and undergarments…the list is endless).
I realize wearing shorts, much like putting a t-shirt on over one’s top, is nothing new. Women with a poor body image, concerns about the sun’s deadly death rays, modesty, or certain religious affiliations have been covering up forever. This goes beyond “I hate wearing a bathing suit in public!” It’s about practicality. Like high heels, the bikini is precarious at best when engaging in any kind of physical shenanigans. Things spill out, wedge in, or parts get lost out to sea. A one piece, while a bit more reliable, is still a crack-chafing negligee. I had always felt as if I had stumbled out into public wearing underwear when dressed in a bathing suit. I felt vulnerable and weak, so I never fully relaxed on family vacations or trips with friends. For the first time since I was a toddler, I was confident, comfortable, and free in the sand and surf.
In Rodanthe, a gaggle of handsome boys gathered around and we sand-surfed down the sides of dunes. I loved rolling off into the warm sand, jumping back up and not having to dig portions of bathing suit out of my bum and such. And if I did develop a wedgie, no one would be the wiser, because my Jams kept my secret.
But I used the surfboard as justification. At some point one might not have a surfboard with them, like at neighborhood pool parties where it’s just weird. I was not fully liberated because I felt in some odd way that I was in drag. Long shorts were for boys, not girls! I felt that everyone who saw me would think I was simply bashful about my body. I didn’t like projecting that, even though it was certainly true. It was also true that I don’t have to wear what the mainstream thinks I should wear, and that poor body image aside, long shorts are a more practical choice for my personality and lifestyle. It took many more years for me to truly embrace the swim trunks, and I have never looked back.
Now in my forties, I have graduated to a bikini top and board shorts (not for surfing, due to the bikinis’ tendency to end up on sea turtles who venture near the Great Sargasso vortex of human detritus). Guys’ shorts, mind you, not the shorter cut women’s style. I buy men’s shorts for soccer and other sports and essentially keep my lower half in drag whenever possible. I buy men’s work pants and guys’ work boots, cleats and running shoes. It’s not only freeing, but men’s clothes are often half the cost and considerably more durable. My Nike swim trunks have seen bikini tops fade, fray and disintegrate in a matter of months, but have remained faithful, not a loose stitch, colors as bright as the day I bought them, regardless of sun, salt or chlorine.
Women are being swindled. If you wish to don feminine duds, you should get the same quality and value that the fellas get. I am no less neurotic in my forties – in fact I may be worse. When they tell you that you become wiser in your forties and you just know yourself better, they mean you finally truly understand what a train wreck you are and move into acceptance. It means I am wise enough to understand what low self-esteem means and how it impacts my decisions and alcohol intake, and that introversion is a sufficient reason for not attending parties and that you no longer need to be “sick” or “out of town that night.” My body image may be better, but more notably, I am aware of some of the ways we are manipulated by marketers. I am not any less feminine because I am wearing a man’s shorts. My body is a tool and I choose to encase it in something that is optimal for the way I need to use it. Who decided men wear this and women wear that? Who put us in high heels? I personally feel physically weaker in a pair of heels and I don’t like that feeling. Other women feel empowered by heels. Good for them. I love the idea of more choices. I love the idea of not being made to feel odd or “other” about my choices. Who made me think there was one right way to appear on a beach?