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.


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