The allegory of the swimsuit and the underwear


After a lengthy and somewhat baffling discussion in my ethnomusicology class about Albanian wedding music, I found myself dumbfounded, and seeking answers to my own questions. The dilemma I was facing was how to cope with the limiting perspective and extraordinarily useless insight that we are provided with by examining seemingly objective, quantifiable data. Sound confusing? By way of sorting out this problem for myself I cooked up this allegory, and here present it to you as The Allegory of the Swimsuit and the Underwear:

A martian anthropologist (let’s call her Marsha), en route to the planet earth, enters her transmogrifying shape-shifter device to take on human form. Her plan is to land somewhere on the western coast of the United States to study the local culture. Upon landing, Marsha finds an apartment, and is soon able to change out of her Martian space-travel clothes and dress herself in some of the local garb.

After becoming settled she walks out to the local beach to observe some social interaction. “How odd . . .” she thinks, as she looks out across the scattered crowds, “people wear their undergarments to the beach.”

After further observation she notices that there are subtle differences between what she previously thought were undergarments, and what people were actually wearing on the beach. First of all, the locals called them “swimsuits,” not underwear, despite their similarity of appearance. Secondly, women’s swimsuits didn’t usually have the clasps and fasteners on their backs that their underwear has (although some did, which she found particularly baffling). Thirdly, most of the swimsuits were generally made out of synthetic materials, as opposed to the cotton that she had found in normal underwear (although, like the fasteners, she also found exceptions — “How odd. . . ” she thought.). Fourth, she found that swimsuits were often made in bright colors (although, like her other observations, she found exceptions among different types of underwear).

The oddest part of all was that Marsha knew full well how inappropriate, base, and offensive the locals considered people who were odd enough to wear their underwear in public, and usually those who did were intoxicated and soon picked up by the local law enforcement. Even if one’s underwear were to become visible by accident, for example, a women wearing a skirt on a bus, if anyone who were to catch a glimpse of it they would be at risk of being physically assaulted, especially if the one who saw it was a young male. Yet, here, on the beach, in a public place with enormous crowds, similarly revealing raiment seemed to be considered a perfectly legitimate way to dress oneself.

As Marsha concluded her studies, she wrote up her report, blasted off to another planet to perform similar research, and transmogrified back into her original form. The portion of her report devoted to swimsuits and underwear read as follows:

Humans in this part of planet earth wear clothes that are remarkably similar to their undergarments in order to recreate at the beach. While it is considered absolutely unacceptable, and in fact illegal, to wear underwear in public places, what these people call swimsuits are perfectly appropriate. The only difference between these two articles of clothing are the name, the clasps (though the difference is hardly noticeable), the fabric, and the colors. Because these are the only physically observable and objective differences between swimsuits and underwear, it is safe to conclude that the difference in human responses to wearing these different types of clothing in public must be due to one, some, or a combination of all these physical attributes: name, clasps, fabric, and color. These humans must be remarkably sensitive to these extremely subtle attributes. In summary it must be this sensitivity to name, clasps, fabric, and color that is what leads these humans to feel so differently about swimsuits than they do about underwear.

And with that, Marsha felt satisfied with her objective and crystal clear understanding of how and why humans on that part of the planet felt so differently about the propriety swimsuits as they did about the propriety of underwear. Other planets were to be subjected to her same superior and objective scrutiny.

UPDATE: Be sure to take a look at one of my possible interpretations for this allegory here.

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