The Science of Bikinis

It’s summertime, and the livin’ is supposed to be easy. I hope you’ve made time for some summer fun in the next few weeks, but one thing that can really pull the brakes on a carefree summer is swimsuit shopping.

Yes, I’ve been to the stores this season and I do know that finding a suit that is body flattering and affordable is really tough. Add to that God’s desire for us to dressswimsuits modestly, and the waters of swimwear fashion can get muddy in a hurry.

We are going to hover on the subject of swimwear for the next several days because I know it is a hot topic (pun intended!) and one that requires us to revisit God’s Word often. Tomorrow I will appeal to the heart of the matter, but today I am interested in waking up your brains!

Some fascinating new research helps us answer the age-old question on whether Christians should wear bikinis. A recent Princeton University study researched the reaction of a group of men to images of people in various states of dress. They were shown images of modestly dressed men and women and images of sexualized, scantily clad women (i.e. women in bikinis). The heads of the people in the photographs were cropped off so the test subjects could not focus on faces, hair, expressions, etc., only on the subjects’ bodies and clothing.

Here’s what researchers found:

Finding #1: Bikinis = Object Mentality

Brain scans revealed that when men are shown pictures of scantily clad women, the region of the brain associated with tools (such as screwdrivers, hammers, etc.) lit up. When reporting this specific result, analysts at National Geographic concluded that bikinis really do inspire men to see women as objects, as something to be used rather than someone to connect with. A good question to consider as you think about this finding is when it comes to your relationships with boys, do you want to be used or do you want to be known? Of course you picked option B … so you’d better keep reading.

Finding #2: Bikini ≠ Empathy

Some of the men showed zero brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is that part of the brain that lights up when a person ponders another person’s thoughts, intentions, and feelings. Researchers called this particular finding “shocking” because they almost never see this specific section of the brain shut down in this way.

This means that these men see women “as sexually inviting, but they are not thinking about their minds,” said Susan Fiske a psychologist at Princeton University. “The lack of activation in this social cognition area is really odd, because it hardly ever happens.”

In other words, seeing a woman dressed immodestly creates a very rare reaction in the male brain by actually shutting a part of it down. But it is the part of the brain that we want to see functioning—that part that allows the men around us to think about our thoughts and feelings. It’s the exact part of the brain that makes a guy want to know us!

Finding #3: A Bikini Changes Who’s In Control

In a separate Princeton study, when men viewed images of women in bikinis they often associated with first person action verbs including “I push, I grab.” But when they saw images of women dressed modestly, they associated them with third-person action verbs such as “she pushes, she grabs.”

In other words, for the women in bikinis the men desired control. When the women were modestly dressed, the men associated the woman with being in control.

Finding #4: Bikinis Are Memorable

Of all the images that were shown, the women in bikinis were most memorable to the test subjects. Most of the men in the study remembered the photographs of women in bikinis most clearly even if they had only seen the image for two-tenths of a second (that is less time than it took you to read between these parentheses).

That may feel like a crash course in brain research, but there are some significant applications to be made toward the way that we dress, especially as the mercury rises.

There is much more to unpack here, and we will tackle it together over the next several days. But before you start to comment, let me head a few thoughts off at the pass.

  • If this research makes men sound like cavemen, I assure you that is not the essence of the findings. No one is asserting that bikinis cause a biological instinct to act out toward women and ignore their feelings, but there is hard data here about the way our clothes affect the male brain.
  • The knowledge that you have the kind of allure that can make you memorable is powerful indeed. But just because you know you’ve got it doesn’t mean you should flaunt it. We will talk about why in tomorrow’s post.

Before you leave me a comment letting me know your thoughts on bikinis, would you check out this short YouTube video? In it author Jason Evert elaborates on the Princeton study and shares some fascinating insight on the history of the bikini.

Watch, comment, and come back tomorrow to find out what should you buy this summer now that you know the science.

About Author

Erin Davis

Erin is passionate about pointing young women toward God's Truth. She is the author of several books and a frequent speaker and blogger to women of all ages. Erin lives on a small farm in the midwest with her husband and kids. When she's not writing, you can find her herding goats, chickens, and children.

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  • Sam

    I would like to see the pictures that they showed the men. Was is something like this ?

    Or like this?

  • SAM

    I would like to see the pictures that they showed the men. Was it something like this ?

    Or like this?

  • Amy Jones

    The fact that the test pictures heads were cropped off is not a good thing, unless men would come across headless women in bikinis in every day life. What they wound up doing is using a tool (a picture… an object) in order to see if men responded to that tool, as a tool. Surprise! They do! They also used a tool that men are used to using as a tool… (re: pornography). Men aren’t used to using images of full clothed women as a tool. The study would have been much more effective had they used actual people instead of images.

    • Ronmar Segev

      What about teaching the boys, not to stare people in the beach or the pool? Education,not covering is the solution

      • Amy Jones

        I definitely agree with you. I was only pointing out the problems with the study itself, not suggesting solutions to objectification.

  • Kayla Clark

    I totally agree with this article. Personally I don’t wear a bikini, but I don’t even think I could be comfortable with showing that much skin. It’s basically walking around in your bra and underwear. For me, wearing a bikini is only asking for one thing. And I think it’s quite obvious what it is. The bible says we should not cause our brothers to stumble, and that is exactly what this generation is doing. How have we strayed so far?! Anyways, I’m not saying if you wear a bikini you are terrible and wrong, I’m just saying maybe you should think about the reasons you are wearing it a little more. With Gods word in mind.

    • Ronmar Segev

      So I guess u have a quite plane body. If u are size 34 in the bottom but 36 38 in the swimsuit bra, or the opposite, the swimsuit need to be corrected. It’s a problem

  • Mary

    Megan, actually the Bible does speak to modesty.

    “likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire” 1 Tim 2:9

  • mandi

    Wearing a bikini is a tough issue. We all have our own guidelines of modesty because we all interpret the Bible differently. I think if you say to a girl that she’s just wearing a bikini just to get attention is a little wrong because you are putting words into her mouth. I on the other hand wear clothes that I feel comfortable in.

  • AWes

    I would also like to point out that the study compared women dressed in bikinis to women fully clothed. It would be interesting to know if one pieces had the same effect.

  • StopS

    It says there “pointing young women toward God’s Truth”.
    Which god? What version of the truth? Is the Burqa the really correct truth?

    • Carrie @ Revive Our Hearts


      Wondered your thoughts about us responding to this one? From the Disqus acct. looks like the individual comments to stir controversy.

      I’m happy to respond, but wondered if you thought it best.


      *Carrie Gaul*

      Revive Our Hearts | Biblical Correspondent

      866.842.8381 Ext. 2089 |

      Revive Our Hearts

      Calling Women to Freedom, Fullness, and Fruitfulness in Christ.

  • Ronmar Segev

    The Princeton research is not finished & totally bias by you. Maybe the area in the brain of men, related to tools, is activated, because the caveman things on building her a beautiful home?. Anyway,covering the women, is much worst, that makes men totally sick obsessed with women body 👀 👀 👀 sexual objectizing them, even more. So? If the choice is between covering or not,not covering is a better option