Asia-Pacific / Beachwear History

How Bombs Changed Swimsuits

The bikini is a cross-cultural piece of clothing worn all over the world. Supermodels make millions posing in it, which has led to the bikini becoming synonymous with glamour and beauty. Perhaps this ubiquity and association with beauty is why some people question who should wear the bikini (although, according to a poll of men, the bikini is acceptable on anyone, as long as it is not their daughters who are wearing it), and what the societal cost is of doing so. Some parents question who should wear their bikini, debating about the age at which it is acceptable for their children to wear the skin-exposing bathing suits. Furthermore, there are issues around body image and bikini, especially the desire for the perfect bikini body and the effect that this idea has on women and their self-image. One swimsuit designer claims that bikinis are immodest, backing her claim with brains scans taken of males who were shown women in a bikini. The brain scans consistently show that when shown pictures of women in bikinis, the brain region associated with tools, such as screwdrivers, drills, and hammers, lights up. Additionally, a shocking number of participants in the study showed no activity in the prefrontal cortex (an exceedingly rare phenomenon), the region of the brain associated with thoughts, feelings, and intentions.

These modern issues neglect the most original issue with bikinis: how bikinis got their name, and how this story represents a case of environmental injustice. This might seem like a far fetched claim—how can the name of a swimsuit be linked to a case  of environmental injustice? The issue, however, is not the bikini’s name itself, but rather how historical context influenced the name, and what it means when this historical context is reduced to an afterthought. The bikini broke onto the fashion scene on July 5, 1946. World War II had just ended, with the Allied countries liberated from the grip of fascist occupation. Millions of Jews and persecuted minorities were liberated from Nazi camps, and the innocent citizens of Europe and Asia were liberated from the terror and threat of war in their backyards. During World War II, the necessity of getting women involved in the war effort forced many nations to glamorize the role of women in society and war. This transformation of gender roles gave women power like they never had before; in a sense, they too were liberated. It was only fitting for a new kind of bathing suit to reflect those very same trends.

At the same time, two French designers were unknowingly creating a “liberated” bathing suit. The first design, created by Jacques Heim, did not find success in the fashion world. Heim created what he called “the smallest bathing suit in the world,” calling his design the atome (named after the recently discovered atom). Right after the release of the atome, though, designer Louis Reard stepped onto the scene. Reard’s design was much smaller, using only thirty inches of fabric. This revolutionary new swimsuit provided newly empowered European women with an extra avenue of liberation, one that they could wear on their bodies. Reard unveiled his swimsuit on Parisian showgirl Micheline Bernardini’s body. The atome was forgotten and the new design was accepted, particularly by men (fifty thousand of whom sent Bernardini fan letters).  

There remained, however, one remaining flaw in Reard’s new bathing suit—it needed a name. At the time of Reard’s and Heim’s releases, a story with roots in World War II was developing, a story that would inspire the name of the new bathing suit. Weeks before Bernardini’s figure sold the new bathing suit style to the world, the United States conducted the first of sixty-seven atomic bomb tests, at Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall islands. Reard used the association of “Bikini” with the atom bomb to promote his design, calling it the “bikini.” His idea made sense: atoms were being split in the atom bomb, while Reard had, with his bikini, virtually splitted the amount of cloth that Heim used in the atome swimsuit design. The scandalous swimwear also shocked the world as much as his bathing suit. ‘Bikini’ had become the term for the swimproof bra and underwear that Reard presented to the world. A closer examination of the nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll reveal, however, a larger issue.

The Marshall Islands consist of two archipelagic island chains of twenty-nine atolls, each made up of many small islets, and five single islands in the North Pacific Ocean, located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia. The current population of these volcanic islands and coral atolls is is 73,376. At the time of the bombings, 167 people lived on Bikini Atoll. For some of the inhabitants, their family had always lived there. The island’s culture and history were represented by the generations of Marshallese who resided on Bikini Atoll. Their religion and spiritual beliefs were rooted in the land they lived on. In 1946, however, everything changed. President Harry S. Truman had seen the power of the atomic bomb, the weapon which had forced Japan to surrender in World War II. In order to test the destructive weaponry, the United States needed a safe test zone far from major population centers; Bikini Atoll was chosen. The Marshall Islands were a far-away imperial claim of the United States, and United States military planners believed that by testing the atomic bomb there the mainland United States would be safe. The United States government forcibly relocated the inhabitants of Bikini Atoll to another island, giving the former residents little provisions while destroying their home. The islanders’ physical and spiritual relationship with their homeland was annihilated by the bombs. According to the beliefs of the Bikini islanders, the destruction of the land was linked directly to spiritual destruction. The islanders were powerless, however, to stop the United States from taking their land, decimating the environment, and disrupting the natural rhythms of their life.

After the end of World War II, the United Nations decided that the Marshall Islands belonged to the United States and should be administered in the form of a land trust. As a result, Bikini Atoll descendents are unable to live in their former sacred homeland. The atoll also harbors a host of harmful remnants of the nuclear tests that persist in the environment to this day. In an attempt to address these issues, the United States has agreed to a monetary settlement with the Marshallese people, an out come that is not nearly enough in the eyes of the islanders, particularly because the clean-up efforts funded by the settlement failed to make Bikini Atoll liveable. Frustration among the Marshallese people, whether or not they are descendents of Bikini Atoll descendents, is prevalent today. To this day, islanders lead talks to commemorate both those killed directly by the bomb (consisting of a Japanese fishing boat that was only sixty miles away from Bikini Atoll at the time of the tests) and those still affected to this day. Bikini Atoll descendents are now spread throughout the Marshall Islands, having lost their sense of place and attachments to nation, spirituality, and history. Despite this negative legacy, the “bikini” name lives on.

In Marshallese, “bikini” means beach. For the Bikini Islanders, the beach became the space they crossed in order to surrender their island for the nuclear tests. Today, the word has different connotations. The topic of bikinis manifests itself in many different modern issues, overshadowing the word’s legacy of environmental harm, spiritual destruction, and historical negligence. Millions of women around the world sport the bikini, the very name of which connotes a historical injustice.

The bikini should not be renamed, nor should the United States should try to fix the giant mess it created. As the Cold War evolved, it became important for the United States to control the atom bomb. Moreover, there is not much that the United States can currently do to address the past wrongs done to the islanders. Money cannot re-create the spiritual connections the islanders once had to their homeland; money cannot save the people who are dying or have died from cancer linked to the radiation; money cannot revitalize the surrounding environment that has been poisoned. While bikinis may offer women a sense of liberation and empowerment and make millions of girls feel like they fit in (or not), the history represented by the name “bikini” has resulted in the Bikini Islanders’ being displaced from their homeland. Every bikini, though cloaked today in modern debates, carries serious historical pain beneath its patterned surface.