Joan Smith: When women cover up, it's what they reveal that matters

Nigella wouldn't be the first woman with a fuller figure to feel uncomfortable alongside young women whose body shapes owe a lot to punishing eating regimes

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It's a fact often forgotten in cultures where women's bodies are on more or less permanent display, but you don't have to take off all your clothes to attract attention. Not a bit of it: Nigella Lawson may have hoped to side-step the perennial bikini-versus-swimsuit debate by appearing on Sydney's Bondi Beach fully clothed – we're talking from the top of her head to her ankles, by the way – but her choice of outfit has prompted as much discussion as the tiniest of bikinis.

Emerging from the ocean in a soggy, wrinkled outfit isn't a good look for any woman, let alone one renowned for bringing glamour into the nation's kitchens. For those of you who haven't seen the (admittedly riveting) photographs, I suppose I'd better try to describe what Lawson was wearing when she took time off from filming a cookery series in Australia: picture a dark blue long-sleeved top with a sort of hoodie thing pulled over a baseball cap. Oh, and matching shiny trousers.

The only time anything like it has been spotted on a beach since the 19th century is when devout Muslim women wear an outfit idiotically called a burkini, which has a lot more in common with a burka than a bikini. And it serves as a reminder of the iron rule that when women go to disproportionate lengths to cover themselves up, they always end up looking so outlandish that everyone stares at them anyway.

I once went shopping in west London with a woman who was wearing black robes and a niqab, and I can't say I felt much sympathy when she complained that people were staring at her in the local supermarket. Unless you have a very big point to make, there's really no need to hide your face when you're buying a bunch of carrots.

There are countries where covering the face is a defensive act, not chosen freely but to avoid being beaten or even killed. Curiously, Lawson's Bondi Beach cover-up struck me as defensive in a different way, even though the explanation offered on her behalf was that she was trying to avoid sunburn.

It's autumn in Australia at the moment and its east coast isn't much warmer than London, although I've recently come back from Western Australia where unseasonably high temperatures (up to 34C on the hottest days) have been keeping people indoors in the middle of the day. I have very fair skin so I lathered on sun cream, wore a hat and didn't venture on to a beach until the late afternoon. And I arrived home without even a trace of sunburn.

I can't help suspecting that Lawson's decision to cover herself up has something to do with the unwanted attentions of the paparazzi; she knows she's a target and she may feel, perfectly reasonably, that she doesn't want to expose herself to their lenses on a public beach. Her body shape looks great in structured low-cut dresses but it isn't ideally suited to the minimalist swimsuits currently appearing on fashionable beaches, where thongs remain inexplicably popular. (Do men realise just how uncomfortable those damned things are?)

Lawson has never struck me as remotely prudish but she wouldn't be the first woman with a fuller figure to feel uncomfortable alongside a generation of young women whose body shape owes a great deal to punishing eating regimes and cosmetic surgery. As supermodels and Hollywood stars become thinner and obesity rates soar in the general population, we're starting to forget what the natural female body looks like; add an outbreak of religious puritanism which finds women scary and disgusting, and it's no wonder that the female body has become the site of seemingly endless cultural conflicts.

Ironically, some of the most voluptuous images of women I've encountered recently come from Afghanistan; they're 2,000-year-old ivory figures of dancing girls, small enough to hold in the hand, and the fact that they've survived decades of civil war is little short of miraculous. These carved women from the British Museum's wonderful Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World exhibition have voluptuous bodies with large breasts, tiny waists and big hips – much more Nigella than Gwynnie or Demi. They belong to the Begram hoard, a collection of artefacts which were left in a bricked-up storeroom in a palace 80 miles north of Kabul and not discovered by archaeologists until 1937.

The figures are probably Indian in origin but what's so interesting is that they were found on the Silk Route from India to China, suggesting that there was a market for, frankly, erotic images of women which stretched across thousands of miles and several cultures. In the 1990s, not long after the ivories were stolen from Kabul's National Museum, one of the most puritanical regimes known to humanity seized power in Afghanistan; the Taliban were literal iconoclasts and it's unlikely that the Begram ivories would have survived if they'd fallen into their hands. Later this year they'll be returned to Kabul and put on display, challenging the notion that this is a part of the world where women have always had to endure a hidden existence.

The impulse to celebrate women's bodies is thousands of years old, but misogyny has deep roots as well; it's a paradox that ancient cultures such as Greece and Rome had more relaxed attitudes to the human body, and women's bodies in particular, than 21st-century theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. I'm never sure whether to laugh or weep when Muslim women in Western countries demand the right to cover themselves from head to toe, but I don't doubt that they've internalised fearful male attitudes towards their faces and bodies. It's a weird species of liberation that blanks out the chief signifiers of a woman's identity and individuality.

These days, most of us have to deal with puritan attitudes in diluted form but that doesn't stop attractive, healthy women agonising over whether their anatomy might be considered imperfect. Obviously I'm not talking about someone who is painfully thin or obese, but it would be nice if women didn't spend so much time worrying about what other people think. Personally, I doubt whether Lawson has started a trend in beachwear, but I much preferred her as domestic goddess than Victorian beach belle.

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