WMU News

Swimsuit controversy reminiscent of past

Sept. 12, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- Once Olympic swimmers fought to wear less, now they are fighting to wear more. According to Dr. Linda J. Borish, WMU associate professor of history and women's studies, the controversy over the new bodysuit being used by some Olympic swimming competitors, including Americans, is reminiscent of another battle over bathing suits fought more than 80 years ago by the first female Olympic swimmers.

"Annette Kellerman of Australia led bathing suit reform in the early 1900s," says Borish. "She wanted a suit that would be more practical and enhance swimming rather than hinder it. The suits they were wearing then were made out of heavy wool, covered most of their bodies and required that they wear stockings so that none of their legs were showing. To wear something less was considered immodest."

Kellerman's efforts to prove that less was more ended up getting her arrested on a beach in Boston in 1906 for showing too much of her arms and legs while wearing a one-piece bathing suit. American women's swimming pioneer Charlotte Epstein also took up the fight. She argued that for members of one of the first U.S. organizations for female swimmers, the National Women's Lifesaving League, it wasn't safe to try to save drowning swimmers while wearing stockings. Epstein noted that for these lifesavers and those who race in contests of speed "water soaked stockings tire the legs."

Today's women swimmers have Kellerman and Epstein to thank for the reform that has brought more aerodynamic apparel to the sport, which this year includes new bodysuits that, ironically, cover a large portion of the swimmer's body.

"Interestingly the new suits are about the same thing," says Borish, "enhancing the swimmers' performances. Except this time the controversy is not about immodesty, but about access. Do all athletes have access to this supposedly performance-enhancing material?"

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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