body image

Bathing suit anxiety: some guesses about why it’s so bad

vintage swim suitSo I’ve been thinking about bathing suit anxiety ever since writing my recent post on body positivity. It’s a peculiar thing, this angst about bathing suits.

And this is the season in which it all begins.

“Look better on the beach this summer”

“Ten weeks to your new beach body”

“10 exercises to get you beach body ready”

Women’s magazines are full of this.

And friends, even reasonable feminist friends, are skittish about shopping for bathing suits, putting them on, and appearing in public in them.

I was chatting about this recently with friends who admitted they liked they way they looked naked and thought they looked actually good in the right bra and panties. But bathing suits? Shudder.

How can this be?

It took me awhile to find the right sort of bathing suit, one that matches who I am. The bikinis I wear and prefer are athletic bikinis. And I think with my shoulders and leg muscles, the message they send is ‘I’m here to swim.’ Think athletic over aesthetic values, something I’ve blogged about here. Opting out of the bathing suit aesthetics has served me well but that’s not such an easy choice if you’re not someone who thinks of herself as an athlete.

But what makes bathing suits different from other sorts of clothing? Indeed different even from clothing with equally small amounts of material?

Two things strike me as different about bathing suits.

First, it’s hard to avoid thinking of the purpose of a bathing suit as sexy attire. Miss Universe etc pageants on down don’t have bra and panties competitions. They have swim suit competitions. It’s hard not to put one on and think of oneself as in that context.

Second, the mental comparison class is different. When I think swim suits, it’s the super models who come to mind. Compared to them, I’ll stay in the dressing room, thank you very much. The women we mostly see in bathing suits are incredibly gorgeous models with other worldly figures. It’s hard to go near the bathing suit rack without the image in mind. And for almost all of us, we don’t compare well to super models in swim suits.

And of course my answer, the athletic bathing suit solution, works less well now that our standards for fit bodies have escalated out of control as well. Read Tracy’s recent post on fitspo. It’s not enough to have muscular shoulders and legs. You need visible abs and now thigh gap too.

I’m not sure how to banish those images from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue from our minds. Look around the next time you’re at a beach. Chances are that no one there looks remotely like that.

I know too that the bathing suits issues are even more complex if you have a non standard issue gender presentation.  See Butch at the Beach: But What to Wear? or the Sartorial Butch’s But she swam too far against the tide.

I also found myself wondering whether men have swimsuit models as their comparison class too, both for themselves and for the women they’re with, or they’re looking at, at the beach.


The image above is from Vintage swimwear – 60 Pics.


10 thoughts on “Bathing suit anxiety: some guesses about why it’s so bad

  1. Men believe all sorts of things that are not true about themselves, and hence do not have a “comparison class” in the same way as women. As for what men look at when on the beach when it comes to women – well, the same things we look at when not at the beach; at the beach, our imaginations simply don’t have to work as hard – oh, and yes, we are mesmerized by supermodels.

  2. I would think also the purpose of the attire plays a role, and the audience. Underwear is by definition a private affair, something that only you and perhaps one (or more) significant others will bear witness to. The bathing suit, however, is a public display; when you look at yourself in a bathing suit, you are forced to view yourself through the eyes of hypothetical unkind strangers.

  3. I also wonder if there’s a difference of audience.

    That is, when I’m wearing just a bra and panties, it’s generally with people I’m relatively close to anyway. Romantic partners, yes — but also closer friends and family members (though maybe not with the same intent as wearing such attire in the presence of a partner). But in general, by the time someone sees me hanging around in my bra and underwear, they’re already someone who knows me quite well — flaws and all — and who like and accept me regardless.

    On a beach or at a pool, the audience changes to become the general public. Which can be a scary thing.

  4. As you know, for beaches and leisure, I prefer to go nude where possible (sadly, the range of possibility for legal nudity is limited). Failing that, the barley-therest bikini (and yes, I feel a bit self-conscious at the beginning but usually get over it shortly into the season or the vacation). But when I’m actually swimming, I prefer a one-piece speedo, though I also have a two-piece speedo for that purpose. Bathing suit anxiety is just an extension of body image struggles, don’t you think? I agree with you that we associate swimsuits with sexy supermodels, but I also think we associate lingerie with Victoria’s Secret models. I wonder if the women who feel comfortable about how they look in their undies are wearing the same style of underwear (sexy) as Victoria Secret models, or if it’s just that, as with your choice of the athletic swimsuit, there is a larger range of underwear out there to choose from, so under garments aren’t necessarily always in the context of “sexy” whereas bikinis are?

    1. Not sure. It’s just funny coming from people who are comfortable in sexy lingerie and in nothing, but a bikini! Yikes. I think it’s the stranger factor along with the super model stuff.

  5. Why do we look different in underwear and in a swimsuit? Easy: the fit is not the same. The bras are designed better and fit your body better (if you get the right one that is). So there is no bulging: the bra sits on your skin. Panties are the same: they don’t usually hug you so tight as to create bulging. But the material of a swimsuit is such and the nature of the activities for it (swimming) requires that it be tighter on your body. Swimsuits expand when they get wet and if you get the panty part to fit just like your underwear, you will lose them in the water. So unless you have no fat under your skin whatsoever, there will be bulging.

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