By Mark Simpson

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 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 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.