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Photographic proof that women just cannot get a break, even on the beach

Tough choice: fined for being too long or too short? (California Historical Society Collection/University of Southern California CC by 3.0)
By Selina Cheng
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

For as long as women have gone to the beach to try to enjoy themselves, it seems, people have followed them there to pester them about their clothes.

Since the early 1900s, women in the United States have been eyeballed, measured with tape, and even sometimes kicked off of beaches for too-short swimsuits, as the photos below reveal. Such modesty-policing was often the result of actual laws—in 1921, Hawaiian senator Stephen Desha banned both girls and boys over the age of 14 from appearing in public in a swimsuit unless “covered suitably by an outer garment reaching at least to the knees,” while in 1933, California’s Redondo Beach Ordinance banned swimsuits shorter than three inches above the knee.

In 1964, a policeman checks if the bathing suit length worn by actress Myrna Ross is long enough. (John Malmin/Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive/UCLA CC by 4.0)

Today, some US beaches still have those laws on their books. In June, a New Jersey councilwoman even called to enforce a 1958 law against swimsuits on beach boardwalks (the law ended up being repealed a month later, instead).

But in France, the reverse is happening. Yesterday, Aug. 22, viral images revealed armed police ordering a beachgoer in Nice to strip off her long-sleeved shirt in order to comply with a recent ban on the full-body cover-up known as a “burkini.” As Buzzfeed’s Rossalyn Warren points out, plus ça change…

To help that sink in, here are a few more pictures of women’s swimwear being policed, from the archives:

A woman was forcefully taken away from a beach in Chicago by police in July 1922.  (Getty Images)
Two bathers were escorted off a beach in Chicago by a police woman in 1922. The bathers were breaking a law banning abbreviated bathing suits. (Getty Images)
Chicago policewomen checking for violations of the bathing-suit-length laws in 1921. (Getty Images)
Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Beach “cop” Bill Norton measures the length of bathing suits on a beach in Washington, D.C. in June 1922.

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