body image · fashion · stereotypes

Bikini Body the “Easy Way”

beach body

When I saw this “How to get a beach body” instructional flyer on facebook, I smiled.  Yes, of course, take yourself to the beach and you’ve got a beach body.

It’s exactly the right way to think about the beach and the body needed to enjoy. And yet, sigh! If only it were so simple.

This is the time of year in the northern hemisphere when lots of women, young and not-so-young, start to panic about being “beach ready” or “bikini ready.” The media comes at us from all directions, with countless articles (none of which I will link to here) about how to get that bikini body.

The assumption, of course, is that the vast majority of us do not have it already. More than that, implicit in this rhetoric lurks normative femininity and the imperative that, if you plan to wear a bikini, you had better have the body for it.

Last week, Jezebel reprinted an article from the Lingerie Lesbian, entitled, “The Concept of a ‘Bikini Body’ Is Infuriating Bullshit.” She says,

Because bikinis are primarily worn in public, unlike lingerie, the idea of judgment is even more real and frightening. In a society that faults fat, cellulite, stretchmarks, pimples or hair anywhere but on our heads, it’s a miracle any of us can pick up the courage to step outside in such a revealing piece of clothing.

She hits it pretty well right on the head.  It’s one thing to say, “go ahead and wear a bikini even if you don’t have the stereotypical bikini body. You’ve got every right.”  I believe that.  I really do.  But it takes a lot of courage to don that skimpy little swimsuit.  Courage and self-confidence. And we are socialized not to have courage and confidence in the bodies we have. I don’t think it’s an underestimate to say that a good 90% of the women I know (and I know lots of feminists!) are either wishing or actively seeking to change their bodies.

A couple of years ago, Jezebel posted “If I Hear One More Word about Beach Bodies I’m Gonna Strangle Someone with a Tankini.” Sam has posted on swimsuit anxiety already, right on this very blog, wondering why it’s so severe. Her guess is that we tend to compare ourselves to the models in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and also that beauty pageants have cemented the association between swimsuits and sexy.

So if you’re not sexy, you shouldn’t really be in a swimsuit, especially a bikini.

My concern isn’t so much why we have the anxiety in the first place, but rather why, even if we reject the idea of normative femininity as an imperative for ourselves, and even if we agree that the whole idea of a bikini body is infuriating bullshit, it’s still hard for many of us to wear a bikini and feel good in it. I myself wear bikinis through the summer, though as I have said here before, I prefer to be nude.  But I really need to talk to myself at the beginning of the season to convince myself that it’s okay to wear the bikini.  I’m never going to look anything like the swimsuit models in Sports Illustrated.

I can also say in all honesty that I have had the bikini body at different times in my life. I can only say this in hindsight because at the time I didn’t feel good in my bikini. The standards I set for myself were so impossibly high that probably the swimsuit models don’t even attain them without photoshop.

What does that tell me?  It tells me that it’s more about self-acceptance than about anything else.  In “If I Hear One More Word about Beach Bodies…,” Lesley, the author says,

Where I live, beach season comprises roughly one-sixth of the entire year, and if you think I am going to waste one second of that precious span worrying about whether the colorblocking on my suit is going to trick people into believing I’m shaped like Gisele Bundchen, then think again.

She gives a few tips for how to get over the anxiety, including “Your body is fine” and “Body-policing is never okay.”  I think she’s totally right. She’s probably also right that mostly people aren’t looking at me anyway.  We much more need to tell ourselves that our bodies are fine than to defiantly shout it out to other people. And it’s the body policing that we impose on ourselves that’s the most crushing.

It’s not all that easy to become immune to the cultural messages we receive about who gets to wear “sexy” clothing and who doesn’t.  But there is something incredibly attractive about women who are comfortable in their skins. And yet, sadly, that level of self-acceptance is so elusive for so many of us, even those who, on an intellectual level, reject the notion that we need to conform to a narrow standard in order to be acceptable.

I had the privilege of attending the Feminist Porn Awards on the weekend. I have never in my life seen such an inclusive range of representations of people claiming their right to enjoy the bodies they have, not the bodies that mainstream society tells us you’re supposed to have.  The films represented them and their sexuality and sensuality beautifully, as sexual agents taking pleasure in their bodies. It was truly eye-opening and inspiring on many levels.

I had been thinking about this post that day, not yet sure what I wanted to say exactly. But what I want to say is this: my ideal beach would be a beach full of the actors and filmmakers who are producing feminist porn.  They do not judge or make assumptions about what we are supposed to look like to be worthy of embracing our physical selves.  They actively seek out bodies of all genders, shapes, sizes, and abilities, representing them equally without fetishizing those that depart from normative standards of the mainstream. They seek to empower, not to shame.

And I am certain that their beach body is no more or less than the one they take to the beach.

As Sam pointed out some time ago in her post about body positivity and the queer community, there actually is a diversity of desire out there. Even among straight men there is a range of body types that they find attractive.  Sam references John Devore’s article about the types of women that “really turn men on” on this point.

I’m not saying that we need to be a part of or even watch feminist porn to accept that the bodies we have today are beach ready no matter what they look like and what they can do. Rather, we can think of it as one model, among many, that’s strikingly more body positive, both in terms of size and disability, than the usual norms about beauty and the beach.