The idea of a “bikini body” is a grand metaphor for a body worthy of being seen. Slenderella International, a short-lived chain of weight loss salons, popularized the phrase in 1961. The company ran a series of ads in major newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. “Summer’s wonderful fun is for those who look young,” they claimed. “High firm bust — hand span waist — trim, firm hips — slender graceful legs — a Bikini body!”
Hand. Span. Waist.
You might be rolling your eyes and feeling a little nauseous at that line, but I bet you also believe in the bikini body.
I know you do. Just a little bit. A hand span’s worth.
How could you not? It’s been part of the American culture imagination for over 50 years. Two generations and counting of an unshakable commitment to doling out access to beaches and sunshine based on how young, light, tight, tanned, and firm women’s bodies look.
I could talk all day about how the bikini body ideal has deeply hurt women by perpetuating a cycle of self-hate and socialized body surveillance, but that’s been done better elsewhere at places like Everyday Feminism (here, here, and here) and Fit Is a Feminist Issue. This delightful video from Bustle takes it a step further by modeling what a multi-variant body pool party might look like (p.s. I want to go there!)
But there’s something about the bikini body clapback that bothers me.
For some reason, #bodypositivity has taken up the Unconditional Bikini Body as the ultimate symbol of self-acceptance and body love. The message, even from well meaning and woke feminists, is that wearing a bikini in public is the most radical resistance to aspirational beauty ideals, body shaming, and the patriarchy itself. For some women, doing the emotional work to rock a two-piece in the body they have now might be a valuable and righteous form of self-expression. For others, you might as well suggest that they take a rowboat to the moon: an impossible, unappealing, and absurd task.
Bikinis, as a piece of clothing, aren’t even available to all women. Some women choose not to wear them for religious reasons, they aren’t available in all sizes, and prosthetics/medical accessories don’t always jive with a more revealing swimsuit style.
When you give one act of resistance such symbolic power, those who can’t or don’t want to are left out. It doesn’t mean these women don’t love themselves enough, or that their choice *must* by a by-product of internalized oppression.
That’s where I think our love affair with the Unconditional Bikini Body can really go off the rails—when women are pressured to perform radical self-love without acknowledging and attending to the risks that come with it. For many women, being visible is a vulnerable act because they have been told over and over and over throughout their lives that there are certain bodies that shouldn’t be seen. When you come to understand your relationship to the world in this environment, you know, without ever even stepping in front of a fitting room mirror, when your body does not fit the criteria. So, for lots of women, the possibility of wearing a bikini in public has always been a row to the moon.
I understand, appreciate, and commend feminist endeavors to reassure women that the bikini body is a myth and that all bodies deserve the right to be visible. But it makes no sense to me to suggest that women should feel empowered and free to wear any piece of clothing, let alone such a revealing one, without being really, really clear about what exactly makes visibility so radical.
I adore looking at pics of women on IG crushing it with mad poolside style in their Unconditional Bikini Body because representation matters. If “wear a bikini to the beach” is something you want to do, it can feel so good to see someone who looks like you doing the thing. But posting on social media requires an incredibly high level of resilience that isn’t readily available to most women. Modeling what a shame-free culture could look like—in all its stretch mark, cellulite, belly roll glory—is admirable not because these women are “brave enough” to be seen, but because they are doing the emotional work it takes to be visible in a body they have been told does not deserve to be seen. They show, by their presence in our real life and online spaces, that resistance to diet culture is possible in this very specific way.
Wearing a bikini doesn’t make you invisible. It does not give you immunity from other people’s diet culture cruelty through special No Fucks Given superpowers. Just because the beachy beauties of IG give us the gift of radical visibility doesn’t mean that anyone has an obligation to wear a seashell bra this summer, nor should we assume that women who do love themselves more than those who don’t.
It doesn’t matter if you can’t wait to hit the beach in your bikini this summer or look forward to beating the heat from the comfort of the air conditioning, because we all have a responsibility to talk about our bodies and the bodies of others in a way that supports inclusion and safety in all our public spaces. It’s not up to the individual woman to summon her own bravery and wear the bikini–it’s up to all of us all year long to show up for radical visibility.
I am committed to supporting every woman out there living in the Northern hemisphere who has a visibility goal this summer. No more #suffersummer! If you’ve been avoiding warm weather outdoor activities because you’re afraid of being seen, I want you to join my upcoming Show Up for Summer program. Sign up below to be the first to know when it drops (it’s coming soon!). I’m rooting for you!
Robb, Alice. “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About Bikini Bodies?” The Cut 23 July 2014. http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/07/why-cant-we-stop-talking-about-bikini-bodies.html