Over the past few years I feel as though many of us have become increasingly critical of the concept of a “beach body” or a “bikini body” -- you know, that idealized sculpted perfected form all the ladymags start yelling at you to get working on in March.
That’s the good news. As I and many others have loudly asserted, all you really need to get a beach body or a bikini body or any other sort of summertime-acceptable body is to apply said modifier to the body you already have. Want a beach body? Take your body to the beach. Want a bikini body? Put a bikini on your body. BOOM. Mission accomplished.
But let’s be honest: that’s easier said than done.
Few of us can totally shrug off the social and cultural pressure to “earn” the right to be seen in swimwear, by making sure our bodies don’t disturb anyone’s sensibilities. If we can't make ourselves flawless, we know we are at least supposed to make efforts to minimize any (usually imagined) discomfort we may cause onlookers. We constantly get the message that a body worth putting a swimsuit on must be a long-term construction project, a prize to be won, a trophy that can only be attained through hard work, sacrifice, and deprivation.
Of course, it's always OK if you want to change how your body looks. However, this "beach body" mindset often prevents women from living their lives as they would like to, instead forever waiting on the fabled day when they finally achieve that impossibly perfect shape before they do the things that they really want to do.
The effect of all this unfortunate language and not-so-subtle pressure is that when the summer rolls around, a lot of us have internalized the notion of a “swimwear-appropriate” body so thoroughly that the act of putting on a swimsuit and heading out to the beach or pool takes on a Brobdingnagian measure of tension and woe, and sometimes requires the conscious rejection of a lifetime of body-shame and fear.
A month or so ago I was thinking about what else there is to say about a beach body, besides that the whole concept is crap, and it keeps women (and men, let’s be fair) from feeling allowed to wear a swimsuit in public, even if they really want to. No matter how much you love swimming, or sunshine, or the beach, sometimes it’s so much easier to not go, to avoid the internal hassle of fighting through your reluctance and possible discomfort, and to head off any potential commentary from strangers who might witness your daring and unapologetic transgression.
So I had an idea.
My original idea was to collect a gallery of actual extremely diverse true-life beach-body (or pool-body, or just swimwear-body, for those not beach-adjacent) pictures from the xoJane community. However, it wouldn't exactly be fair to ask you all to submit pictures for us to run publicly on xoJane without doing so ourselves as well.
So I proposed that we, the xoJane staff, take a group photo of ourselves in our favorite swimsuits, unprepared and unphotoshopped, to demonstrate that it’s OK if your body doesn’t match what the media is always showing you -- you’re allowed to wear a swimsuit, in public. You don't need to be ashamed.
When I suggested this in a staff meeting, the room went more silent than I think any xoJane staff meeting has ever been. My heart sank, and I suddenly realized, Oh god, I’ve just made all of my colleagues hate me FOREVER.
The truth is, I’d only been thinking about this photoshoot from my own perspective: Well, I'm the fattest person here, therefore I should be the one most likely to have a problem with this idea, and if I don't, then nobody else should either!
This was embarrassingly short-sighted of me.
Everyone carries their own individual set of body issues. Some lucky few carry very little, and these are the people who jet through life mostly unburdened by what they look like. Many carry some middling degree of baggage -- not enough to radically disrupt their lives and their choices, but enough to get distracted every once in awhile. And some folks drag massive trailers of worries and self-loathing around every day, so accustomed to the effort and the shame that they barely realize it's not a permanent part of them, but is rather something they can choose to let go, and leave behind.
You find people of all shapes and sizes in all of these groups. There are super duper fat people who have no reluctance about showing their bodies, and there are slender people of modelesque proportions who are convinced they're hideous misshapen monsters who should never be seen. No one shape or size of body gets to "own" body image problems -- they're found among all sorts of people.
But back to that staff meeting: Jane loved the photoshoot concept, of course (even while calling it “terrifying”) and had her own ideas about how to push it a little further (see her Jane's Phone post today for more about that). Overall, the staff seemed game -- if we weren’t exactly excited, we were willing to slog through it for a higher purpose.
We dealt with our uncertainties in our own ways. A couple days in advance, I made my husband take a flurry of pictures of me in various swimsuits so I could decide which one to wear. Jane stressed about the fact that she didn’t own a swimsuit she liked all that much, and asked Olivia to go buy her one -- one she didn't even try on until the photos were taken. Olivia texted me the night before the shoot asking for “words of wisdom” to avert pre-shoot nervousness. Donna, our brand-new senior social media editor, used to model swimsuits for the Today Show years ago, and was shocked to be asked to do it again. Mandy admitted to feeling incredibly nervous during the shoot. Emily didn’t worry much at the time, but then when the photos came back, even she confessed to some anxiety when she actually saw them.
My point is: it looks easy. It looks like we just cheerily threw on swimsuits to show off our unaltered, unprepared “beach bodies,” without a second thought. But it wasn’t easy. It was actually surprisingly challenging, for all of us.
And yet, it was also fun. Our smiles are genuine. We laughed the whole time. I like to think that our experience, on a gorgeous morning on a balcony overlooking Manhattan, was cheerful because we were pushing past our worries and self-doubt to do something authentic and revealing. It was joyful precisely because it was a forcible rejection of shame and fear.
That, more than anything else, is what makes these photographs awesome to me. We didn't go into the shoot professionally made-up and hair-styled and waxed and dieted/exercised into allegedly “better,” more beach-ready versions of the bodies we already have. And we also didn't go into it just not giving a crap about how we looked.
None of us is bulletproof. We all have our private moments of body shame, like everyone does. What made this effort meaningful is the fact that we pushed through all those anxieties to do it.
It was pretty magical. And I’d like to ask those of you inclined to make a similar breakthrough to do the same. Take a photo of yourself in a swimsuit (bikini and beach optional) and send it to email@example.com. If you don't have someone around to take a picture for you, go ahead and snap a swimsuit selfie.
And if you're not comfortable with this idea? That's absolutely OK too. This is a no-pressure situation. We’ll compile what we do get into an amazing, positive, fear-banishing gallery for everyone to benefit from.
While what makes a body awesome varies dramatically from individual to individual, I can sincerely say that I look at these pictures and only see how amazing we all look -- myself included -- just as we are. Because I don’t just see bodies with heaps of specific flaws to be corrected. I see a group of multifaceted, incredible people whom I have the privilege to know. I wish we could all look at one another through this lens, all the time, even when we're seeing a stranger. Because none of us are just our bodies; there is so much more to each and every person on the planet than what their body looks like, no matter what size or shape or age it might be.
What if the only force standing in the way of you being able to wear a swimsuit without shame or fear is inside your own head? It’s all right. You can get past it; you can take a chance. If you want to.
All photography by Lauren Perlstein.