beach body · body image · fashion · feminism · normative bodies

Bodiless Swimsuit Ads Reinforce Body Norms Too

It is summer swim season! I know this because I see on my Facebook feed “beach body” memes and a dramatic uptick in swimsuit advertising.

a cute seal with the words in meme font Beach body ready...for winter
The least repulsive of the repulsive memes about beach bodies. Because cute seal.

I normally don’t pay much attention to swimwear ads because swimsuits are not that important to me. However, I can understand the appeal of shopping online: no store assistants, no dressing rooms, no drama with wrestling with ill-fitting suits.

Swimsuits from a Facebook ad that have no models wearing them.
Swimsuits from a Facebook ad that have no models wearing them. Okay, there’s one person, but the suit looks drawn on!

But this year, I have noticed that a few swimwear ads that feature either 3D-drawn images or the actual suits put on photoshopped-out mannequins. I don’t remember seeing before ads with these hovering bodies that are legless, armless, torsoless.

Tracy has noticed how the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated gives women equal opportunity to be objectified. Obviously that’s not good. If sexified suits objectify women regardless of age, and if a steady diet of these images still perpetuates body ideals, then is no body in the swimsuits our inclusive and evolved solution?

The decision to dis-embody models in these ads is likely far more economic than activist: I’m sure it’s cheaper to use realistic pictures or torso mannequins than to hire real people, and shoppers may have an easier time imagining themselves in the suit without a real body in it for comparison.

And maybe I’m making too much of these ads, but they weird me out. They make me think of Kevin Bacon as the Hollow Man in a tankini. The disembodied swimsuit model–as imperfectly resembling a human being in a way that causes “uneasiness and revulsion”–should be added to the graph visualizing the uncanny valley hypothesis.

The uncanny valley graph portraying how non-human bodies create uncertainty and revulsion the more realistic they become. Added to the image is "disembodied swimsuit ads."
By Smurrayinchester – self-made, based on image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman at CC BY-SA 3.0. Adapted by a weirded-out me.

From my feminist perspective, the no-body in these ads is not equivalent to everybody: it removes the one thing people need to wear these suits in the first place. These ads may avoid replicating images of so-called ideal bodies, but they also remove the bodies people have–complete with colour, fat, wrinkles, blemishes, scars, and hair. Ironically, the absence of real bodies features the ultimate normative body, one that is stripped of all uniqueness of size, shape, and mobility differences. In the case of the leaky, hysterical cis-female body so feared and scorned by patriarchy, what body is more “perfect” than the one that does not exist at all?

I tried to find answers to my questions (except the last one, which was rhetorical) with more Internet. While many web articles give advice on purchasing swimsuits by size, fit, fabric, style, cost, coverage, quality, versatility, quality, and “features” (like pockets), none described whether I should buy online a suit modelled by a real but photoshopped body or by an invisible but perfect fake body. I did notice that a few articles–such as Teen Vogue and TripSavvy–used these body-less swimsuit images in their feature banners as well.

For the record, in all this web searching I did notice more body-diverse swimwear than I have seen in the past. After staring at row upon row of swim-suited no-bodies, I was comforted and excited by these all-too-human ads.

Then, I realized that online shopping has its own trappings, and I closed my laptop altogether. Maybe going into an actual store to try swimwear on my own body is looking not be so bad after all.

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