In defence of skimpy swimwear for men

Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat was another believer in skimpy togs for men.

Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat was another believer in skimpy togs for men.

If you use any form of social media, you’ve probably already seen those photographs of two young men wearing some seriously skimpy swimwear on a beach in southern Spain. The pictures have spent the past couple of weeks being circulated to raucous laughter. Men! In half-thongs! On the beach!

The supposedly offensive contraptions were spied on Bobby Cole Norris and Harry Derbridge as they filmed scenes for British reality show The Only Way Is Essex. In brief (boom tish etc), the scanties look like teeny, tiny, half-finished speedos, or a what might pass as a tiny doll’s purse. The bathing suit seems to defy all laws of physics - the package goes in the pocket while a thin strap slings round the back and and clings on for dear life. Needless to say, a fair amount of ... grooming ... is required to really pull the whole look off.

When I first saw the images, I balked along with everyone else. Where did it all go? How did it stay up? Why is this on my computer screen? But as the days passed and person after person reposted, I started to feel a little differently about them. Skimpy slings (or ‘schlong thongs’ as Norris jokingly refers to them) leave very little to the imagination, which is an unusual position for most men to be in. Cast so wholly and unabashedly under the gaze typically reserved for women, I started to think that the look was - dare I say it - kind of sexy.

The "schlong thong" as demonstrated by The Only Way is Essex stars Bobby Cole Norris and Harry Derbridge.

The "schlong thong" as demonstrated by The Only Way is Essex stars Bobby Cole Norris and Harry Derbridge.

It’s an unpopular view. Most people I’ve spoken to casually about the images reject them on sight. While individual explanations vary, they all seem to boil down to one essential idea - that the contraptions are ridiculous, effete and somehow altogether too feminine to be considered attractive. ‘Real men’ are apparently above engaging in such silly vanity exercises. 


This is what Daffyd would be wearing if we made another series of 'Little Britain'...

— David Walliams (@davidwalliams) June 12, 2014

Whether or not unconscious, there’s a disturbing element of homophobia and misogyny mixed up in the criticism. Plucking, waxing, primping and preening are for women and sissies, not red blooded heterosexual males whose bodies are not traditionally subjected to the scrutiny and criticism of an external judge. And I suspect there’s a degree of discomfort at witnessing two men (even ones who are openly gay, as Norris and Derbridge are) embrace the idea of themselves as passive objects of desire rather than active pursuers.  

Mark Simpson (the man who coined the term ‘metrosexual’ back in 1994) recently wrote that man’s 21st century evolution is that of the ‘spornosexual’, a coalignment “where sport got into bed with porn while Mr Armani took pictures”. But although 20 years have passed, the sneering criticisms which plagued initial understandings of ‘metrosexuality’ have not gone away. As Simpson writes here, “Just as male homosexuality was still stigmatised and partly criminalised back then, the male desire to be desired – the self-regarding heart of metrosexuality – was scorned by many. Narcissism was seen as being essentially feminine, or Wildean – and look what happened to him. The trials of Oscar Wilde, the last dandy, at the end of the 19th Century helped stamp a Victorian morality over much of the 20th century. Male vanity was at best womanish – at worst, perverted.”

In this casually homophobic article in the UK’s Telegraph, Louisa Peacock writes with horrified glee about the Norris and Derbridge flaunting their scantily clad bodies all over Marbella. “I'm still struggling to find any sentence that can justifiably excuse Bobby and Harry's half-thongs...If this is what some men think makes them look sexy, then we're all doomed.”

Leaving aside for a moment the obnoxious body shaming that would be justifiably howled down had this been an article about women, Peacock has a curiously narrow view of what constitutes attraction and titillation. She asks, somewhat rhetorically, to be shown any woman who would find this ‘hot’. Yet it’s clear from her tone that such a thing is impossible. Why? Because heterosexual women aren’t visual? Because we can’t appreciate or superficially lust after a beautiful body in the same way that men can? Because we are cerebral and not tactile?

Like so many others, Peacock seems to hold the view that it is the domain of women to present themselves for regular objectification and scrutiny. And yet, when men do these same things, they are charged with being weak, vain, gay, self absorbed, unmanly, ridiculous. It’s no coincidence that the things that are just about expected behaviour in women are considered emasculating when taken up by men, and policed equally by everyone.

So I’ll say it. I like the dick slings. I think they’re playful and sexy and I like the confidence with which they’re worn. And maybe that’s what’s really offensive to some people. That despite all the sexism and homophobia that erupts when men behave in ways typically assumed to be feminine, there are some who’ll continue to do it anyway. Who knows, maybe it’s because they hold the radical view that behaving ‘like a woman’ isn’t actually something to be ashamed of.