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ROBIN ABCARIAN

An Itsy-Bitsy, Teeny-Weeny Social Hypocrisy

July 10, 1996|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Awoman I know is a successful entrepreneur, affluent enough to pay for a personal trainer, a cook who specializes in low-fat food, a masseuse and frankly, any cosmetic surgery she so desires.

She is, for 40, in great shape.

But there she was recently, splayed on a gurney at a local hospital, about to give birth to her first child by caesarean section.

"Don't worry about the scar," her obstetrician reassured her. "We're going to give you a bikini cut."

A bikini cut? Unless that's part of some Labor & Liposuction package you haven't mentioned, said the mother-to-be with a guffaw, don't bother.

What woman who has just spent nine months watching her belly obliterate the sight of every body part south of her navel is going to thank a doctor for that? She's wondering if she'll ever squeeze into a muumuu again, let alone a regular bathing suit. But a skimpy two-piece?

That's as realistic as dropping an atomic bomb on a small Pacific island, then promising its natives they can go home again.

I don't think so.

*

This summer, like the first wave of baby boomers whose sagging flesh it now mocks, the bikini turns 50.

Since it has caused me and hundreds of millions of my close personal friends so much misery, I personally hope it goes the way of the bombed-out atoll for which it was named.

One of this country's most influential bathing suit designers, Robin Piccone (proud, 36-year-old owner of two bikini cuts, thanks to two caesarean deliveries), recommends women forget about wearing bikinis, "unless you have a washboard stomach."

Piccone, who lives in L.A., says she was reminded recently (by a husband who will remain nameless) that her bikini-wearing days should probably be a thing of the past. After the disbelief and horror wore off, she says, she realized he was right.

"I'm usually running after toddlers, so I'm more comfortable in a one piece. If I bend over, I know everything will stay where it's supposed to."

You'd think the bikini would hug the curves better, since after all, it was invented by a French automotive engineer.

It is such a strange garment, with so much meaning invested in so little. And at such a price. . . . A publicist for Chanel said the Paris fashion house's black "eye patch" bikini, named for the approximate area of breast coverage, costs about $500 this year. When I asked what the price was based on, she explained: "It's based on the fact that you won't see every woman wearing it. It's a very special thing."

Indeed.

Ultimately--and forgive the serious treatment about what amounts to a quarter yard of fabric, plus trim--bikinis promote social hypocrisy in a land that is torn between the competing impulses of Puritanism and prurience. Here, the barely clad female form or her nude, disembodied parts are celebrated ad nauseam by the popular culture, but glorious full-body nudity is not only shocking but actionable.

Proof? Several years ago, an ad for Nivea body cream was pulled from magazines after protests because it featured a side shot of a stunningly fit nude woman facing the morning sun.

At the same time, an ad for Calvin Klein's Obsession featured a naked woman shot from nearly the same angle as the Nivea model. However, this model's head, legs and arms were cropped out of the picture, leaving only a naked female torso, nipples erect, next to a bottle of body lotion.

The Obsession ad ran with no objections.

*

The paradox of the bikini is not the absurd ratio of fabric to price. It is instead something the little suit shares with any clothing style that serves to underline, exploit or enhance female sexuality: What is touted as a liberating fashion can just as readily be a form of enslavement as well.

(Oh, not real enslavement. Hold your hate mail, Civil War historians and Swedish bikini team fans. I know the difference between real slaves and fantasy ones.)

But look at it this way: Bathing costumes of the Edwardian era may have been bulky and ugly--who really wants to emerge from a romp in the surf encumbered by soaking wet wool?--but at least a bathing beauty didn't have to stop eating three days before her outing, then spend the day sucking in her stomach until she grew faint. Nor is there a single Edwardian on record who had to be peeled off the ceiling after experiencing the wondrous pain of a "bikini wax."

Sure, bikinis are liberating . . . the way bombs create peace, the way withholding sex education prevents teen pregnancy, the way smoking promotes calmer nerves.

Furthermore, without them, there would be no topless beaches. And that, as my husband says earnestly, would be a real tragedy.

* Robin Abcarian's column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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