Hmong women and bikinis

Marilyn Monroe in vintage swimwear.

Summer is my all-time favorite season of the year, with Autumn/Fall being runner-up.  Many people hate summer because of the heat.  Since I’m a person who gets cold easily, I welcome the scorching California weather.  I could spend my days on the beach or by the lake or pool all summer long.  Others fear getting tanned.  I love having the golden, sun-kissed look (because I am naturally tanned myself).

As a Hmong woman, I was always taught to act and dress accordingly, especially when I’m around older Hmong folks and/or relatives.  Always have your hair out of your face.  Never wear a dress above your knees to a family gathering.  Better yet, don’t wear a dress.  Never show cleavage.  Don’t wear tank tops.  Make sure your shirt covers at least your shoulders.  Shorts are a big no-no unless they’re Bermuda shorts.  If in doubt, wear pants.  Pants are always safe.

Several summers ago, my cousin, Tou, and his newly wed wife, Stephanie, visited California.  The day my grams ua neeb (Hmong ritual ceremony) for them, Stephanie was wearing shorts.  Her shorts were mid-thigh—very moderate in my opinion.  One of my grams’ relatives whom we call “Aunt” was offended and asked Stephanie to change, because a respectable wife should not wear such scandalous clothing.  Upset, Stephanie changed into pants.

Photo via Flickr

The question is: should a Hmong woman, especially a married one, wear a swimsuit—or more horrifically, a bikini—to the lake, beach, or pool?  Would a Hmong woman be shameless if she wears a bikini struts around almost naked at the lake?

I asked my mom how a decent Hmong woman should dress should she want to go swimming.  My mom’s response was: long shorts down to her knees and a t-shirt.  She could maybe get away with a tank top.

Hmmm…  Not really my idea of being comfortable by the waterside.  Regular clothing drags and does not dry as fast as the fabrics use in swimsuits.  And they stick to your body like leeches hungry for blood.  Additionally, how are you supposed to get a tan by covering up most of your body?  Might as well jump into the water fully clothed, right?  But then again, people would think you strange for doing such a thing.

I wear swimsuits.  I love swimsuits.  One-piece.  Two-piece.  Bikinis.  I am currently obsessed with vintage/pin-up style swimwear: retro top with front bow-tie and high-waisted, boy short bottoms and one-piece swimsuits (like the one Marilyn Monroe is wearing in the photo above).

Double standards exist everywhere, and Hmong society is no stranger to it.  A little Hmong child is so adorably cute in her 2-piece.  A Hmong man can walk around in shorts, showing his nipples at the lake, beach, or pool (Well MB, his shorts come down to his knees and that’s really what counts).  Any woman other than Hmong can wear string bikinis.  But when a Hmong woman—especially a married one with children—wears a bathing suit, then all hell breaks loose.  “Niag poj niam Hmoob ntawv tsis paub txaj muag li (That Hmong woman is shameless).”

There is nothing shameful about swimsuits.  Nothing at all.  More traditional Hmong individuals would think otherwise—women’s swimwear: a blasphemous piece of clothing that resembles under garments.  To show a bit of respect, I’ll cover up when I’m out of the water (long tank top that covers at least my bottoms or shorts).  Sometimes, I’ll wear a sarong.  If I’m in the water, I do not cover up.  This is my unspoken compromise with those who do not like seeing someone half-naked.

Naked Hmong children

Naked Hmong children in Laos (via Wikipedia)

I don’t understand this aversion to a Hmong woman’s nudity.  I know that it’s cultural.  Europeans are more comfortable with nudity than Americans or the Hmong.  People from Papua New Guinea and indigenous tribes from the Amazon Rainforest are among those who have not subjugated themselves to clothes.  It’s not shameful if a woman shows her breasts or if a man walks around with his penis hanging out.  Since the invention and commercialization of clothes, people have developed a strong abhorrence towards the human body, especially our baby-making parts.  The words “vagina” and “penis” are hardly freely spoken in public as it is either “embarrassing” or “vulgar” language.  Instead of teaching the correct terms to children, society teaches pee-pee, wee-wee, cookie, and ding-dong.  But why?  Everyone has either a penis or a vagina.  And we were all born nude.  We should not be offended by something so natural as the human body, and yet modern society has come so far as to view the naked body as unpleasant to the public eye.

I am no advocate for nudity, although I wouldn’t think it is an abomination to wear bikinis, let alone be naked.  At least in bikinis, we women cover our breasts and crotch, right?  Sometimes I feel as if the Hmong culture puts so many restrictions on Hmong women (from how we should behave to what we wear to how we raise our family) that it’s sadly, laughable.  If we don’t conform to the cultural norm then we’re labeled and judged.

So, what is your opinion on Hmong women wearing bikinis around Hmong individuals who do not like it?