Loughlin Joseph

“Small and devastating”: the violent history of the bikini

A Loughlin Joseph original piece.

for Loughlin Joseph

Featured image: Parisian showgirl Micheline Bernardini modeling the first bikini in 1946. Courtesy of Réard Paris.

The landscape of a woman’s body is governed by cultural edicts relegating its parts sacred and yet profane. It is a contested site subjected to shifting lenses of what the body represents. Is it a divine vessel for life? Is it a collection of parts to be sexually desired? In the contemporary Western context, deep-rooted patriarchal values often subjugate the female form to various degrees of oppression and violence. 

Take for example a woman’s navel. Historically, exposing this area has been considered taboo. In many cultures around the world, it has been associated with fertility and considered too sacred to show deliberately and with abandon in some instances, and in others too provocative to expose deliberately.  

Louis Réard with two swimwear models. Courtesy of Réard Paris.

In 1946, Louis Réard, a French engineer, challenged this taboo by introducing a new incendiary bathing suit style. It consisted of four triangles with 30 square inches of fabric held together by strings of cloth. The triangles covered the breasts, groin, and the buttocks. Every other part of the body was left exposed, significantly with the navel on full display. Contrary to her contemporaries, a young performer named Micheline Bernardini agreed to model the swimsuit that Réard aptly named ‘the bikini’. As a nude dancer at the Casino de Paris, Bernadini was already engaged in what was considered marginalized work.

The name bikini is key in understanding its latent cultural significance, having entered the cultural sphere at that moment because of ‘Operation Crossroads’. The United States government was conducting high-profile nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll, an island in the Pacific Ocean. Réard capitalized on the media coverage and aligned his new design with the violence of the Able and Baker nuclear tests. He declared like the bomb, the bikini is small and devastating.

Louis Réard at work in his office in 1946. Courtesy of Réard Paris.

Now seemingly benign and embedded into the collective lexicon, the origins of the word “bikini” belie a sordid story—one reflective of  how the female form is understood. The native residents of Bikini were relocated twice to other islands where there was not enough food and water to adequately sustain the community. The United States had promised their return to Bikini but the radiation levels are still so high, that as of 2019, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the island is deemed not safe for human settlement. Any attempts to clean up the site have been considered unsafe and quickly abandoned. 

As the native residents of Bikini grapple with the consequences of their displacement, the bikini continues to create unrealistic expectations for the female body. Now, the navel is deemed beautiful if it is extremely flat, a form difficult to achieve and framed mostly for admiration by the male gaze. From the Freudian perspective, both the bikini and the events at Bikini Atoll confirm that the sexuality in most male human beings contains an element of aggressiveness—a desire to subjugate. It is not a coincidence that the bikini is a ‘male’ invention named after nuclear tests that destroyed Bikini Atoll’s community and ecosystem. Both the nuclear tests of Bikini and the bikini on the female form are actions meant to control and subjugate.

A U.S. nuclear bomb detonated near the shores of Bikini Atoll.

Today, women engage in rigorous and at times punishing efforts to ensure that their bodies are ‘bikini-ready,” conforming themselves to a limited and suffocating standard of beauty. As much as the bikini is now associated with leisure and freedom, its roots are firmly planted in ideas that restrict the female form to exist without coercive dynamics of power and control. Yet, despite its origins, the bikini has become a symbol of freedom. The ‘Body Positivity’ movement embraces bikinis being worn by all body types as a means to celebrate shape diversity and expand narrow ideals of what a “bikini body” should look like. Its narrative is being navigated to where all bodies can be exposed in a bikini as a way of liberation from the male-dominated gaze. The argument is that the bikini can be worn as a form of empowerment, notwithstanding of its roots in Western patriarchy.

Despite its diminutive size, the bikini looms large within the political landscape of the female body. It has become a symbol of contradiction as it holds cultural meanings of subjugation and liberation. On social media, through hashtags and photos, women of all sizes, shapes, and skin color, espouse the importance of having empathy for their bodies. Often accomplished while wearing a bikini—daring and politically liberating act revealing all the so-called extra folds, skin, and flesh.

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