Codi Maher noticed that bikini bottoms were shrinking a few years ago. “First it was cheeky cut, then Brazilian,” said Ms. Maher, a 30-year-old real estate agent in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. As the fabric covering women’s derrières disappeared, she started thinking about getting a thong swimsuit of her own: “I was just like, everyone’s wearing them, screw it, I don’t care.”
Her sister, Cassidy, 24, said she started wearing thong bikinis a year or two ago because she believed the cut made her “butt look a little better.” She also likes the lack of tan lines, a sentiment repeated by numerous women. “Sometimes I feel uncomfortable,” Cassidy said. “But I’m starting to feel more confident seeing other women wearing them.”
Some attribute the latest surge of G-strings and thongs to celebrities who wear the swimwear style, including Emily Ratajkowski, Kim Kardashian, Kendall Jenner and Kate Hudson. “The thongkini is Hollywood’s swimsuit of choice,” Popsugar declared. “Anticipate lots of thong, string and cheeky cuts,” Rolling Stone wrote.
Though the terms are often used interchangeably, G-strings and thongs are different. G-strings have a thin strap running between the buttocks, connected to the waistband. A thong, while still offering the T-back look, has a triangle of fabric at the top, covering the space between the buttocks and the lower back. Another category called Brazilian bottoms offers more coverage than thongs; these are skimpy and high-cut, elongating the leg and exposing most of the buttocks. But all of these variations point to one thing: Skin is in.
Major retailers, including Victoria’s Secret and Billabong, are offering G-string and thong swimsuits as part of their 2023 swimwear collections.
While the thong has ancient origins — and iterations of the garment have popped up around the globe — the style first appeared in public in the United States in 1939 ahead of the New York World’s Fair, after the city’s mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, mandated that showgirls perform covered rather than completely naked (as was both common and contentious at fairs in this period). The 1939 mandate was part of the mayor’s larger war against displays of “filth and lewdness”: In 1937, Mr. La Guardia backed a citywide ban on 14 burlesque theaters that led to police closures of such striptease clubs for the first time in the city’s history. The ban was contested and quickly made its way to the New York Supreme Court, where lawyers for the burlesque clubs tried unsuccessfully to force the city to reissue their licenses.
Decades later, on the West Coast, another legal strike against displays of flesh spurred swimwear innovation: In 1974, when the Los Angeles City Council banned public nudity, the Austrian American designer Rudi Gernreich responded by inventing the thong bikini.
“The thong is my response to a contradiction in our society: Nudity is here; lots of people want to swim and sun themselves in the nude; also lots of people are still offended by public nudity,” Mr. Gernreich said in a manifesto in the 1970s, citing, according to Vogue, “Brazilian swimwear, sumo wrestlers’ mawashis and thong sandals as references” for the style.
The same conflict Mr. Gernreich identified would eventually propel the G-string all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The court ruled on G-strings in the case of Barnes v. Glen Theatre Inc. in 1991 and in City of Erie v. Pap’s A.M. in 2000. In both cases, exotic dancers who wanted to completely strip down argued that laws requiring them to wear G-strings infringed on their First Amendment rights. But the justices upheld the legislative requirements, in rulings that are “widely derided as failures in terms of First Amendment reasoning,” according to Amy Adler, a law professor at New York University.
The court deemed female nudity a threat to social order and upheld the G-string as a “solution to crime, disease and mayhem,” Ms. Adler said. The garment is all about dualities — a thing of “fantasy and dread,” she said, at once pointing to and hiding a woman’s sexuality.
In recent years, a number of North Carolina municipalities have loosened restrictions and enforcement of nudity laws to accommodate an increase in scantily clad beachgoers. (Thus far, municipalities in South Carolina have declined to follow suit, despite calls to get rid of the thong law.)
For now, the legal wrangling over thongkinis seems confined to the Carolinas. Thong bikinis are legal in most parts of the United States, but laws vary by city and county. In Florida, for example, thong swimwear is prohibited in state parks, including some portions of the state’s beaches.
Regardless of the legality, many women say the cut helps them make peace with their bodies. In the past, skimpy swimwear was often considered the province of women with conventionally “perfect” bodies, but today, G-string, thong and other barely there bottoms are embraced by women of all shapes and sizes.
Nikki Sutton, a paralegal from Atlanta with two kids, explained that she ordered a white thong bikini ahead of a trip to Puerto Rico because she wanted to “feel sexy for a second.” Though she had recently gained 15 pounds, she said, she decided to rock the thong anyway because it would push her outside her comfort zone and force her to be “completely content” with her body exactly as it was, “with every piece of what I have going on — inches, weight, the whole thing.”
“That’s what a thong does to me,” she said. “It’s empowering and it forces me to feel a little more comfortable in my skin. I have to walk with a certain level of confidence, whether I feel that way or not.”
Ms. Sutton said she hoped that her flaunting what she sees as her imperfect body in public would encourage other women to be comfortable in their own bodies, no matter their shapes or sizes.
Wearing a G-string is “liberating,” said Laura DiBiase, a 32-year-old college counselor from Los Angeles, because it symbolizes “taking ownership of your body.” Ms. DiBiase said her adoption of the style was tied to her personal fitness journey: As she started hitting the gym more, she became more confident and started wearing G-string bikinis, which in turn enhanced her confidence.
But some see the style as a double-edged sword.
“There are certain bodies that are just marginalized — fat bodies, older bodies, bodies with visible disabilities,” said Celine Leboeuf, an assistant professor of philosophy at Florida International University. “There can be something liberating about claiming those clothes that people say you shouldn’t be wearing because of your body. But then you fall onto the other edge of self-objectification.”
Mari Heredia, a 49-year-old medical technician from Boynton Beach, Fla., said she wears a thong swimsuit because “I need to tan my booty.”
The last time she wore one, she added, was 20 years ago, on holiday in Cancún. Reflecting on her body today, she said: “I’m fat, but guess what? I have two kids. This is my natural body.”