Can’t Hold Back the Sea: The Story of Annette Kellerman

by Violet Gray books


When the summer months roll around and the time comes to shop for a new bathing suit, we take several things into consideration. “Do I want a one or two piece bathing suit? How much does it cost? How will I look in it?” And while several factors go into deciding whether we should wear a bathing suit, we take for granted whether we can wear it. If you’ve never looked at a swimsuit and asked yourself, “could I be thrown in jail for wearing this” then you probably owe that to Annette Kellerman.


Born in Australia in 1887 to classical musicians, Annette Marie Sarah Kellerman suffered from rickets, a disease characterized by soft, weak bones that can bend under pressure.  At age six she was walking with the aid of steel leg braces similar to those depicted in the movie Forrest Gump. Doctors suggested enrolling her in swimming courses and her parents did so, the aquatic equivalent of giving Serena Williams her first tennis racket.

Finding water much easier to navigate than land she dove headlong into her new hobby and by age 13 her legs showed no sign of weakness. By age 15 she’d won her first race. She didn’t know it at the time but she was on a path that would challenge what it meant to exist as a woman in public.

It would be no exaggeration to say that 1800’s swimwear for a woman closely resembled

Example of Victorian swimwear

gothic lolita cosplay. Full-on dresses, with high necklines, elbow length sleeves, voluminous tea-length skirts and bloomers underneath. It was heavy, and in some cases the hem was even weighted to prevent the skirt from flying up while in the water.  So, possessed of the radical notion that swimming draped in yards and yards of wool was impractical Annette designed a new women’s swimsuit. It was very similar to men’s swimwear at the time; a skirtless, sleek and practical romper.

Its debut did not go as planned. Her intention was to be efficient rather than immodest, but the form-fitting nature of her attire made it obvious that there was in fact a woman under there. When she strode out to the waterside she drew a shocked and jeering crowd, was immediately arrested by police and charged with indecent exposure.

Kellerman modeling her new swimmer friendly suit

Annette won her case, arguing successfully as to the impracticality of women’s swimwear, and with that trial she gained a measure of freedom for herself as well as a place in history.  Aquatically inclined women everywhere owe her a debt of gratitude, for without her forging a trial they might still be hitting the beach dressed like sexy Puritans.  
While her impact on women’s attire is what she’s most known for, to focus on it exclusively would be to downplay the extent of her creativity and innovation. With her clear-tank swimming exhibitions, Annette Kellerman is widely considered to be the progenitor of synchronized swimming. When her athletic fame allowed her to transition over to film she broke barriers there as well, becoming the very first Hollywood actress to film a nude scene. She is the world’s first professional mermaid, having designed and created her own mermaid’s tail with which to perform both live shows and later onscreen. Later in life she became a prolific author as well, publishing several books on swimming, as well as articles on nutrition, fitness, beauty, and an anthology of children’s stories.

AKWhen six year old Annette Kellerman first dipped a toe into the water it was not her plan to become an activist. But in a world where simply being a woman can be an act of rebellion she had the courage stand up for herself and earn a place in history the way so many great women do; by demanding the freedom determine her own limits.

Beautiful or Nothing at all

By: Kourtnea Zinov’yevna Hogan

Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed became fully invested in her search for beauty in 1585. Over 400 years ago. You’ve probably heard of the brutal murders she committed, considering that she’s been labelled as the most prolific female serial killer. Though her kill-count isn’t set in stone, it is estimated to be close to 650.

The Son of Sam was driven to murder by the Devil. Carl Panzram was driven by a deep hatred for humanity. But Elizabeth was driven by something quite different. The desire to be young and beautiful and to stay that way. And, of course, there is no better way to reduce crow’s feet than by bathing in the blood of virgins.

Considering that the modern cosmetic industry wasn’t invented until the 20th century (about the 1920’s), Bathory was ahead of the curve. I think we tend to view the past victim-2through rose colored lenses. It’s hard to picture such a heavy focus on beauty before the makeup industry came along (an industry I’ve known and felt forced to be subservient to for my entire life). People often hold up the art of the renaissance as a time where women were not shamed for their bodies. The women in the paintings look real, are modeled after real women, are unaltered by photoshop or airbrush. But the renaissance was running its course at the same time of Bathory’s vicious murders. Maybe being held up to the impossible standards of goddesses and angels wore women down long before film, magazines, models, and porn ever worked their way into the main thread of society.

To think that someone, many someones, could be driven to hate the natural folds and lines of their bodies is unsettling to say the least. Women are held to strict standards that blur from person to person (or man to man). Too much makeup is for whores and sluts. Louis_Bataille,_'Deux_cas_d'anorexie_hysterique'_Wellcome_L0020548_(backcropped)Who are you trying to look good for? She’s asking for it. Too little makeup is off putting, because the natural face is not what “natural” looks like in magazines and film. You look tired. Are you feeling well?

Thankfully, positive movements have sprung up from the depths of the internet. Countless women have come forward to tell their stories about the struggle of learning to love their body. Women are clearly broadcasting that the way they look is not for men, and are supporting one another for their outfits, their choice to wear makeup or not, for expressing their sexual desires in whatever way they see fit.

But positivity is slow moving. The backlash against women has had its own revival. How can boys grow up to be men who support women when the President is man who once told a woman that it must be a pretty sight to see her on her knees? Or who is quoted as saying that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you have a young and beautiful downloadwoman attached to you? “But she’s got to be young and beautiful.” And how can girls grow into women who love themselves when they grow up hearing their mothers call themselves fat and ugly? When nearly every representation of a beautiful woman is one that is photoshopped?

We live in a world where you are nothing if you are not beautiful. No matter how smart, talented, or good-hearted you may be, if you are not physically appealing it will be brought up. And if you are beautiful that will be all that will be brought up about you too. Beauty is an inescapable vice with very strict criteria. No wonder someone would be driven to kill for it.