Ramblings

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?

10 thoughts on “Hmong Women and Bikinis

  1. Change never comes easily and every right anyone ever gained for themselves had to be taken. It was never given. So you go girl. Break down those cultural restrictions.

    Also, you mentioned you live in America. There’s a lot to be said to at least half way conforming to the dominant culture in which you live. You could point that out to your relatives too.

  2. MB, you might want to gently remind your mother (is she in her 50’s?), that there are Asian North American women her age, that are wearing cycling shorts and biking daily. She may or may not wear a tank top also or cropped tank top.

    It’s not ridiculous…I’m 53 and biking around. I don’t have a car and haven’t for past….3 decades.

    But not into wearing a bikini top…though I did in my 20’s. I’m just beyond the need…actually now it’s protecting my skin since I’m outdoors alot because of cycling daily.

    1. My mom is 42. She married young and was a teen mom. I try to open her mind up to the world, but she’s stuck in her ways. She wouldn’t understand.

  3. Personaly, I find this topic sort of amusing… I grew up in France and moved to the US 22 years ago. A few days in the US, I was invited to this youth church picnic at the beach. Once there, I followed the other hmong girls to change. When I came out I was shocked… They all had extra long t-shirt over their swimsuit and they all gasped at my modest fushia one piece… They thought I was scandalous and whispered between them while I was wondering “How on earth are you guys gonna be swimming with those on?” … Fast forward 22 yrs, I am now 42 year old and still wearing swimsuit “sans-Tshirt” except I now wear 2 pieces because I grew more comfortable in my skin with age…. I do not do it for shock value, I do it because I work out 5 days a week, I look good and I am comfortable in it… If anyone has a problem with that… let them look the other way 🙂 …. P.S: my mother is over 60 and she does tell me that even if she never had a problem with me wearing swimsuit without t-shirt on, she does wish I would wear those nice one piece with flowery design and a little skirt on like a mature mother of 3 should LOL

    1. Yep… that was how I did it when I was younger: a one-piece under a long heavy t-shirt. Anything else would’ve been taboo.

  4. LOL! I’m a mother of 3 and I used to care about what Hmong people say about me. Being a new “nyab” I would always dress appropriately and never dare show any cleavage or let others think of me as a possible “sex” symbol or desirable because I was married. But now, I don’t care anymore. Like Syienna, I too have grown comfortable in my own skin with age. I have a pre-teen daughter and am teaching her to hold her head up high, wear bikinis and show the world what she’s got. She’s beautiful and her attitude compliments it, so why not?? I think as my generation age (in my 30s) and become “grandmas”, Hmong women will have more freedom to enjoy fashion the way it was meant to be for “all” women.

    1. I know that we are in America so we dont care about what our parents said anymore. But, there is a good reason why our parents don’t want our girls or nyaab to wear two piece bikinis or swim suit when other Hmong elders are around. You can wear what you want at your private home or when there are no Hmong elders around. But, please respect the Hmong elders because it is a lack of respect and is offensive to them by wearing that. People will look at you and think about many negative things which is a bad thing.

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