Now that spring break season is upon us and summer is on its way (despite the mixed messages from the current weather situation), it’s not too early to start thinking about swimwear for the holidays and vacations that one might be going on in the coming weeks and months. Recently, a post about swimwear caught my eye, because it wasn’t just regular swimwear; it was a company called Enchanted Bikinis and they create Disney princess-inspired swimwear, although they say on their website that they are not associated with Disney. Pick your favorite princess, browse their website and you will find a cute bikini with a design based on her signature costume. I was delighted by the adorable bikini top and bottom combinations for Ariel, Snow White, Belle and Rapunzel that I saw first on the list of their products. Personally, they’re a little too cutesy for my taste, but I can easily see how they could become a popular product. However, their last bikini combo is what really caught my attention. It was a Pocahontas bikini, complete with the fringe and a mock paint tattoo on the arm of the model in the swimsuit. I was surprised and not in a good way. While the other swimsuits were cute, I feel that the last one was made in poor taste. It trivializes a culture and sexualizes a people, turning ethnic clothing into a sexual accessory and shaming a historical figure who Disney already tampered with enough.
My first problem with the swimsuit is the same problem that many people have with any form of Native American-inspired clothing made for mass production. As can be seen by the pushback in recent years against dressing up as Native Americans for Halloween, more people are starting to realize that it’s not harmless fun. Rather, it is cultural appropriation for profit, and it’s offensive, as an article from Matador Network, a travel and lifestyle brand that offers social commentary, explains. There’s something wrong with the scenario if a culture is being exploited to make money by exoticism and hypersexualization, as can be seen all too often in “sexy” Native American costumes, and now again in the new bikini.
Their indigenous clothing is not something that Native Americans take lightly, and manipulating the clothing in this way is extremely disrespectful. Their ethnic clothes are often closely tied to spiritual and cultural meanings that are thrown to the wind when worn as just costumes by non-Native Americans or in these circumstances, recreational swimwear. I once went to a Native American hip hop concert and one performer, Micco Sampson, one of the Sampson Brothers, said something while describing his indigenous attire that really stood out to me. He said something along the lines of, “This is not a costume, this is my art,” as he had personally designed the clothing that he was wearing, as was the custom of his tribe. His clothing and any product inspired by it or other indigenous clothing isn’t something for people to wear on Halloween and is certainly not something for me to wear to sunbathe by a pool. Treating indigenous clothes in that manner strips them of the greater meaning that they hold to the people that they actually belong to and makes us guilty of silencing their voices in the name of mass production.
Another issue is the blatant sexualization of both a historical figure and Native American women by the Pocahontas bikini. Pocahontas was a real historical figure — she is not the same as Snow White, Belle or Rapunzel, who are all fictional characters of the fairytale tradition. According to the National Park Service’s web page on Historical Jamestown, Pocahontas was probably around 11 or 12 years old when John Smith first arrived in what we now call America — much younger than Disney made her when they released their animated film, “Pocahontas,” in 1995. The real Pocahontas would probably have worn clothing depicted in the Buzzfeed article, “If Disney Princesses Were Historically Accurate”; namely, not much clothing at all. The reason for that being that she would be too young to be considered a woman, too young to be considered sexual in any way and probably would not be required to wear any kind of covering over the top of her body until she was 13 or 14 years old. While I can understand Disney making a few changes to traditional clothing for audience purposes, the whole situation is ironic because Disney took an 11 year old girl who was not meant to be sexualized in even the slightest way by her own culture and turned her into an 18-20 year old, sexy, Native American goddess with luscious hair, long legs and an exaggerated hourglass figure. The Pocahontas-style bikini is so problematic because it not only creates a hypersexual stereotype of Native American women in general, but it also furthers the ridiculous fictional narrative about a little girl who had a real place in history, not a sexy woman who sang about the colors of the wind or what was around the riverbend.
Finally, what I find to be the biggest and most glaring problem with the bikini especially, but also with any Native American-inspired clothing, is that wearing these kinds of clothes is quite literally dressing in the clothes of the conquered and the annihilated. The European settlers were responsible for the deaths of millions of Native Americans, both through war and disease, according to the organization “United Against Genocide”’s website, as they continued on their quest to conquer the Americas. Those people didn’t die so that I could wear a bikini inspired by their culture to go to the beach, pretending to be someone who wasn’t allowed to live because of their culture. When the Natives wore their indigenous clothes, they were considered savages by the Europeans. When we now decide that we like them, we market them as cute and sexy. Appropriating and exploiting any culture is bad, but appropriating a culture whose history ties in so violently with your own, on whom your ancestors inflicted so much pain, suffering and loss, often because of the things that you are now profiting from, like their way of dressing, is both sick and twisted.
I don’t have a problem with the entire line of bikinis by Enchanted Bikinis. I think that the ones based off of fictional characters are completely fine — childish perhaps, but not offensive. However, I can already think of issues of hypersexualization of Arabian women with their Princess Jasmine-inspired one, but there would be enough there for another article in and of itself. The crux of the issue is that any clothing that sexualizes and/or trivializes a culture is not cute, funny or stylish. It’s offensive, insulting and says nothing about the wearer and manufacturer except that they have poor taste and/or are grievously ignorant. If you really love the character of Pocahontas so much — thanks to Disney, we are all too familiar with the version that they have given us — I would recommend that you go read about who she actually was, what she looked like and what her place in history was — not buy a bikini that further perpetuates derogatory stereotypes about Native American women and bogus information about an important woman in their history.