body image · fitness

Camping as a study in body image and gender

image description: Tracy at the campground in a wide-brimmed sunhat, sunglasses, and an 'active dress,' smiling, pine tree in background.
image description: Tracy at the campground in a wide-brimmed sunhat, sunglasses, and an ‘active dress,’ smiling, pine tree in background.

I went camping on the weekend. It was Canada’s birthday weekend and though it is almost always hot on the July 1 long weekend, it isn’t always quite THIS hot. Saturday was in the 30s Celsius with a Humidex (“feels like”) reading of 45C. That’s pretty much unheard of around here in Southwestern Ontario.

With temperatures like that you would expect people to wear as little clothing as they can get away with. Swimsuits maybe? We were camping after all. Shortly into the hellish heat of Saturday, I observed that many more men than women were dressed in ways that expressed body acceptance, and that the children were the most comfortable in their skins than most of the adults.

What criteria did I use to draw my conclusion? Firstly, let’s talk about the kids. Swimsuits, sometimes only the bottoms, and sheer joy in the splash pad or in the lake or on the slip and slide thing or in the wading pool or running through the sprinkler. The kids had zero self-consciousness about their bodies.

Second, the men. I hate to generalize along gender lines because there are always exceptions. But many men felt perfectly at ease with their shirts off in the heat of the day. And that was appropriate to the temperature, even if you were in the shade.

Finally, the women. It’s a very common sight at beaches and swimming pools to see women with big towels wrapped around themselves until the moment they get into the water and back around them the moment they get out. It was no different at the campground. That is, if they wore a swimsuit at all. Few women wore two piece swimsuits that weren’t tankinis.

I understand feeling body conscious. I felt it myself, debating long and hard whether to wear a regular bikini top or a tankini (I went for the bikini top).

I don’t begrudge men their comfort with their bodies. But it has always been a mild source of resentment for me that there is a larger range of body types with which men can be comfortable as opposed to the range of body types for women. Now, of course, it’s always up to anyone to say “screw the normative standards of what constitutes ‘acceptable appearance.'” But even if you disagree, for many it’s still a lot of work to challenge those standards. And so we end up with men baring their chests on a really hot day while women stay covered up, either with clothing, tankinis and one-piece swimsuits, or towels.

There is something unfair about that, and it really became clear to me on the weekend.

Have you noticed this too?

21 thoughts on “Camping as a study in body image and gender

  1. What? Wait? Wearing a tankini or one piece bathing suit is a sign that you don’t accept your body/ Nope, not true. I just personally don’t like to wear a bikini.

    1. Good point. Not necessarily. But I think many people choose them to cover up, not from modesty or simple preference, but as s result of body shame. Lucky you if your reason for not preferring a bikini on a hot day has nothing to do with body shame. I would venture to say that is rare.

      1. Disagree.and it bothers me when women make judgements like that about other women.

      2. Got cut off. Women should feel free to wear what they want and are comfortable in without being judged or analyzed. Wearing any kind of bathing suit is far different than wearing long sleeves and pants in the heat.

      3. I appreciate your point of view. I can understand why “clothing policing” is unpalatable to you and if you read my post that way, it makes total sense that it would rub you the wrong way. My post was not meant to police but rather to observe that the men appeared more comfortable showing more skin than women did. I consider that an interesting gender difference and am convinced it has to do with feminine norms of appearance being much narrower in range than masculine norms of appearance (though I also take Sam’s point that men are becoming more self-conscious as well, and that’s sad). At the same time, I wouldn’t consider a claim that many women make clothing choices out of body shame to be a “judgment” condemning women’s choices since it is in fact born out by a good deal of research. Women can wear what they like. And indeed we should wear what we like and feel comfortable in — if that means less revealing clothing, that’s a legitimate choice. And yet I would still argue that it’s too bad that many women (at times I would include myself in this–I do not run in a sport bra for example even though I can see why it would feel good on a really hot day) are uncomfortable with their bodies and *for that reason* try to cover them up. The observation was not simply about tankinis, but also about hiding behind towels. What I didn’t include in my post were conversations I had with quite a few women on the weekend that involved them body-shaming themselves, refusing to wear swimsuits at all (and so suffering in the heat), and just generally engaging in a lot of self-loathing that was definitely triggered by the heat and the desire to stay cool but the sense that there was a personal cost in doing so).

        It seems your circles of women are super well-adjusted, immune to social forces of normative femininity, and never express that kind of thing about their own bodies. That too is of great interest to me, since it’s really gratifying to know there are pockets of women who have a strong physical self-image and make confident choices that aren’t susceptible to oppressive norms of appearance.

      4. Yes many women are uncomfortable with their bodies and many women are comfortable. In fact, I think more women are becoming comfortable given that there are more examples of fuller figured women in the media who are successful whether it’s a model like Ashley Graham or singers such as Niki Minaj. Women come in all shapes and sizes. My objection is to over generalizing about beachwear indicating comfort or discomfort. Enough said.

  2. Men also are twice as likely to die of skin cancer so while I envy the body comfort it’s not at all clear to me that they’re making the right choice all things considered. Still, I get the body comfort point. Sadly, I think it’s changing in the direction of less body comfort for men too. And also lots of interesting differences between queer men and straight men. Ditto differences between queer women and straight women. So super complicated but sometimes it’s obvious.

  3. I am very fair-skinned and cover up as much as possible to avoid burn and sunstroke. I have never wore a bikini and never plan to for that reason. Too much skin exposed and too much of a risk for burn, and as same noted skin cancer.
    For me, bathing suits are actually chosen for swimming – and comfort in doing so.

  4. The sun protection angle is not something I thought of. That makes good sense too. I wonder if over time, as the sun becomes more dangerous due to destruction of the earth’s atmosphere, we will see more options available that involve fuller coverage.

    1. Hi Sam– I really want to get a stinger suit (an adult swim onesie) for swimming in the ocean, as I can avoid using much sunscreen and not worry about sunburn, etc. I like the sleekness of it (see my other post) and it makes me feel covered but also body defined (whatever that means).

      1. Right. I get that. Not body hiding. The Burkinis are like that too. I want one for dingy racing. I need to be covered.

  5. I have had so many of the same experiences that Tracy has had, even this summer. I was at a family graduation party at my sister’s house (with a pool– yay!). As soon as I had eaten and chatted some with older relatives, I snuck out to the pool in my favorite one-piece. I love the way I feel in tight one-piece suits, kind of sleek like a seal in water. I was praised for looking after the kids in the pool, but really I know that most of the other women (of differing sizes) didn’t feel comfortable wearing any kind of swimwear in public. I feel really sad for them about this. I don’t know what more to say right now, but it definitely is thought-provoking. Thanks, Tracy.

  6. I appreciate this post and I would have probably made the same observation you did, Tracy, because I’ve also noted women covering up a lot more than men — and another I note is how in a place like a nudity-optional spa it’s younger women who wear bathing suits a lot more than older women. (Same for wandering around butt naked in the locker room at the gym). Of course there is “choice” involved but I always want to unpack what goes into that choice a little — some of it IS likely sun protection, and I’ve heard so. many. women in my life not want to show their thighs or hips or bellies because they “aren’t comfortable” — even on super hot days. Unpacking that discomfort usually leads to a certain kind of shame, even if shame feels like too strong a word.

    It’s funny, many many years ago in another life I went to a woo woo music festival and did a workshop on “shame ceremonies” (some feminist fake anthropology bullshit lol). We were asked to work with something that made us feel shame. I can’t remember what the other women in my circle talked about but it was somewhat superficial, and when it was my turn, I talked about my body and feeling ashamed of a recent weight gain and it was fascinating that the workshop leaders and other people in my group sort of did this kind of double take and said, wow, you went right to the one we are all too reluctant to name, but the one that’s one of the big ones for all of us.

  7. One of the interesting things I’ve noticed in moving to a beach town (in Florida–very warm all year round) is that both genders are more comfortable with wearing less. In turn, that’s made me more comfortable! I’ve moved to less restricting running shirts, and even, yes, sometimes running or doing beach yoga in my sports bra. My mental hurdles to that are more based in modesty conditioning than shame about the way my body displays, but it’s astonishing to see how being in line with the majority can loosen or tighten our sense of constraints.

    1. I like this — v. interesting. Also I quite frequently take my shirt off while running and run in a sports bra. Even though I shouldn’t for sun protection reasons.

    2. I feel the same when I’m on the sailboat for long periods of time or at a beach for an extended period. The longer I’m there, the more comfortable I am in a bikini. (I wear a lot of sunscreen)

  8. Just chatting here bc I’m enjoying the conversation… I’m the opposite. I get somewhere warm and want to take everything off and feel the sun on my skin. But pretty soon after that I want to cover up bc of the sun. Living in Australia did that. Note I watch friends have pre cancerous skin patches removed each year. It’s scary.

  9. I got over myself some time ago… l knew that dressing for the weather/activity would net me a far better experience, so… l just really talked myself into it several years ago. I spent most of that day in my bathing suit, shoeless, no cover. Oh..l did have my floppy hat and a goodly amount of see through sunscreen 🙂

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