Speedophobia: America’s Fear and Loathing of Budgie Smuggling

grey Speedophobia: Americas Fear and Loathing of Budgie Smuggling

Mark Simpson undresses the tor­tured rela­tion­ship between American men and their swimsuits

(Out, February 2007)


If the stern, kill­joy rub­ric of this warn­ing sign, erec­ted in the 1960s by the good people of Cape May, N.J., sounds like a way to rain on a gay beach party, that’s because it was.

Cape May, a resort town a few hours south of New York City by car, had become a pop­u­lar gay haunt by the late 1950s, nick­named “Cape Gay” by the cognoscenti. According to a 1969 art­icle in Philadelphia magazine, “their pub­lic dis­plays of affec­tion, par­tic­u­larly among men wear­ing women’s bathing suits on the main beach… turned off the towns­folk.” The city coun­cil, eager to pro­tect its flock from glimpsing the ter­ri­fy­ing out­line of adult male gen­italia, was moved to pass a law for­bid­ding bikini bathing suits on males over age 12 — a “phal­liban,” if you will.

Now, of course, such a sign is incon­ceiv­able. Or rather — unne­ces­sary. After all, every­one knows that male bikinis — or, to give them their trade name-turned-generic moniker, “Speedos” — are unof­fi­cially banned from all main beaches in the United States, whatever your age.

You may think them prac­tical and sexy and iconic. You may con­sider them the single most per­fect and pithy item of cloth­ing ever designed for the male body. You may con­sider them the only thing to wear on the beach. You might even con­sider your­self slightly over­dressed in them. But if you do, it’s prob­ably because you’re gay. Or for­eign. Speedos, oth­er­wise known as “banana ham­mocks,” “marble bags,” “noodle bend­ers,” and “budgie smug­glers,” are appar­ently as un-American as Borat’s body thong.

Speedos on a nongay beach are the surest way to earn your­self angry stares, abuse, and plenty of room for your beach towel. As a res­ult, Speedos have in the United States become a badge of gay pride and exclusion-as overt homo­pho­bia declines, rampantly overt Speedophobia is bring­ing U.S. gays and Brazilians together, hud­dling together at the far end of the beach in their Lycra.

Male celebs like David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Daniel Craig may now be nicely filling out their Speedos on their beach hol­i­days — but none of these fel­lows are American. Speedos and even more reveal­ing male swim­suits are pop­u­lar in South America, Asia, much of Europe, and espe­cially, of course, in the land of the pert-butted lifesaver: Australia, the place where the “Aussie cossie” and much of the beach life­style we know today was born.

The Speedo is more than just “gay” beach­wear: It’s a sym­bol of sexual free­dom and a redis­cov­ery of the body after cen­tur­ies of clammy Christian morality.

Bathing and swim­ming are undoubtedly pagan pas­sions. The ancients inven­ted the sea­side resort and spent a great deal of gold on, and time in, their blessed pub­lic baths, where the men bathed and swam naked. Not because they were indif­fer­ent to naked­ness, but because they esteemed vir­il­ity. Every night was wet jock­strap night (without the jock­strap) at the Roman baths, and espe­cially well-endowed bathers were likely to be greeted with a round of applause; dur­ing the reign of notori­ous size queen Emperor Elagabalus, those who hung low at the baths were pro­moted to high office.

Alas, neither swim­ming nor bathing nor size-queenery sur­vived the decline of the Roman Empire. Medieval Christianity, with its ghastly sus­pi­cion of the body, rendered water — the sen­sual cleanser of limbs — sus­pect. As late as the 16th cen­tury, bathing was thought to be wicked, unhealthy, and, er, filthy. (Even Catholic bap­tism used only “holy” water, water that had been blessed, sym­bol­iz­ing the cleans­ing blood of Christ: Sin was the deep-down dirt that Christianity was angry with.)

The English were the first to redis­cover the lost art of swim­ming, largely as a res­ult of their explor­a­tion of Polynesia in the 18th cen­tury, where swim­ming was com­mon amongst the bliss­fully naked nat­ives. By the 19th cen­tury swim­ming in rivers, lakes, and the sea was almost as pop­u­lar in England as it had been in Rome — fre­quently naked, males and females, some­times at the same time.

Christian mor­al­ists, their influ­ence hav­ing resur­ged in the late 19th cen­tury, were nat­ur­ally incan­des­cent at these dis­plays of wan­ton hap­pi­ness. They suc­cess­fully cam­paigned for local bylaws ban­ning day­light bathing, or insist­ing on the use of “bathing machines” that allowed the bather to enter and depart the water unseen, or requir­ing “neck-to-knee” bathing cos­tumes (New York State had such a law until as late as 1938). A typ­ical swim­ming cos­tume com­prised a pair of woolen knick­ers extend­ing to the knees and a sleeve­less jer­sey. Not a good look.

To their eternal credit, it was the Australians who struck the first blow against the 19th-century phal­liban. With typ­ical Aussie obstin­acy, the men of the aptly named Manly Beach chose simply to dis­reg­ard the pissy-prissy laws ban­ning day­time bathing. Faced with this sea­side insur­rec­tion, local author­it­ies threw in the towel and lif­ted the ban in 1903. The rest of Australia fol­lowed (swim)suit, though pre­cisely what kind of swim­suit was still con­tested. Many male bathers dis­reg­arded the neck-to-knee ordin­ances, either rolling their one-piece down to the waist or, wear­ing trunks, simply improvising.

Good Christian folk found this intol­er­able. There was a strident cam­paign by decent, upstand­ing, if slightly pal­lid, Christians to get male bathers to wear modesty-preserving bathing “tunics.” Protests by angry crowds of male bathers at Manly and Bondi Beach — wear­ing bal­let skirts and sarongs — put an end to the Ozzie phalliban.

So it was in Australia, a warm coun­try where most of the pop­u­la­tion ten­derly hug the coast­line and pay little atten­tion to busy­bod­ies (per­haps because Australia began as a con­vict colony), that the bod­ily free­dom of the mod­ern beach life­style (“surfers rather than serfs!”) was inven­ted, anti­cip­at­ing by dec­ades the sexual revolu­tion of the 1960s — giv­ing men’s pack­ets and asses free­dom of expres­sion. It was this, not Kylie Minogue, that was their greatest con­tri­bu­tion to world cul­ture. Australia, a coun­try fond of cas­u­ally abbre­vi­at­ing English, abbre­vi­ated the male bathing “cossie,” and with it Victorian morality.

The insti­tu­tion that did more to export this vis­ion of a sandy, nicely roun­ded uto­pia than any other, smug­gling mil­lions upon mil­lions of “budgies,” was ori­gin­ally called MacRae Knitting Mills after the fam­ily who foun­ded it in Australia in 1914. Among the first com­pan­ies to pro­duce spe­cific­ally “ath­letic” designs (i.e., swim­ming cos­tumes that didn’t double as sea anchors), MacRae changed its name to “Speedo” in 1928 after staff mem­ber Captain Parsons coined the slo­gan “Speed on in your Speedos.”

In 1955, Speedo intro­duced nylon into its fab­ric for com­pet­it­ive swim­wear (unwit­tingly invent­ing a whole new branch of fet­ish­ism). The 1956 Melbourne Olympics provided a sen­sa­tional debut for the new sheer style of brief briefs when Speedo sponsored the medal-sweeping Australian team. By the time of the 1968 Olympics and through the ’76 games, almost every gold medal­ist swim­mer wore Speedos. Naturally, men all over the globe wanted to enjoy the sen­sa­tion for themselves.

Even in the United States. Up until the early 1980s, Speedos were a com­mon sight here, both on the beach and at the pool. Everything was lovely and snug and nicely out­lined. But then some­thing hor­ri­fy­ing happened. Sometime in the late ‘80s men’s swim­suits began to grow in length and bulk. Year by year they crept down the thigh toward the knee-and bey­ond — all the while bil­low­ing clown­ishly out­ward. Now U.S. men wear, of their own voli­tion, not even the knee-length woolen knick­ers that the Australian men of Manly hero­ic­ally pro­tested in the early 20th cen­tury, but bloom­ers — a volu­min­ous form of female attire last seen in the 1850s (and gen­er­ally regarded as ridicu­lous back then). In the water, today’s Speedophobic males are half-man, half-jellyfish.

Unfittingly enough, this tra­gic trend began with someone wear­ing two pairs of shorts at the same time. In the ‘70s bas­ket­ball shorts were skimpy (almost like Oz foot­ball shorts), but Michael Jordan pop­ular­ized sex­less long shorts in the NBA in the late 1980s. “He wanted to keep wear­ing his lucky University of North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls shorts,” explains Australian aca­demic David Coad, author of an upcom­ing book on sexu­al­ity, gender, and sport,” and decided to wear a longer pair to cover the shorter ones.” Because Jordan was Jordan, oth­ers copied, and thus baggy shorts became fash­ion­able. It seems that this evil trend spread to male swimwear.

There was, I’d ven­ture, another, weight­ier reason for this swim­wear ele­phant­iasis. The late ‘80s was also when male obesity became a big trend in the United States. Baggy shorts hide baggy but­tocks. They also wear higher, and their large pro­file makes a baggy stom­ach con­sid­er­ably less obvi­ous than when hanging over the waist­band of a Speedo. Moreover, “board shorts” hide the chicken legs of a car-centered soci­ety in which men watch sport (while eat­ing) instead of play­ing. Is it simply a coin­cid­ence that when many young American men saw their bod­ies los­ing mas­cu­line defin­i­tion they star­ted wear­ing ladies’ bloomers?

The ‘80s also saw the rise of the male as appet­iz­ing, ideal­ized media sex object. The bar for male beauty was being set higher and higher as the real­ity was get­ting heav­ier and heav­ier. The tyranny of “boardies” is an expres­sion of male self-consciousness, self-loathing — and para­noia. Both of being “checked out” and not meas­ur­ing up. The ‘80s saw a steep rise in the American male’s aware­ness of gays — and with it his desire not to be mis­taken for one by in any way sig­nal­ing that he actu­ally had an ass and a packet. Baggy shorts are a delib­er­ate and cruel affront to homos — but it’s nice to know that straight men are think­ing about us so much.

Gays are, of course, flam­boy­ant Speedophiles. They are less likely to be over­weight. They are more likely to be worked-out. Hence their wear­ing Speedos really rubs people’s noses in it — in every sense. Gays are gen­er­ally more than happy to advert­ise the highly ver­sat­ile sex-object status of the male body — and a Speedo screams COCK!! BALLS!! ASS!!… in any order or com­bin­a­tion you fancy.

It’s as obvi­ous as a badly smuggled budgie that des­pite the pagan pas­sions of pop cul­ture and an enthu­si­astic uptake of the beach life­style, the prom­ise of sandy sexual lib­er­a­tion has come slightly adrift Stateside. The pain­fully unequal sexual divi­sion of labor on U.S. beaches, where women wear little more than eye­liner and men wear tents — without the pole — is a sorry test­a­ment to that.

The phal­liban spirit of 1960s Cape May has triumphed.


© Mark Simpson 2012

This essay is col­lec­ted in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

Comments are disabled for this post