By Ophira Edut
For years, I dreaded the arrival of spring magazines, knowing they’d be filled with pages of flirty, colorful and teeny bikinis fitted to fat-free model bodies. I was a girl with cellulite, Beyonce thighs (when she’s eating her favorite southern dishes, that is) and a tum that more than coquettishly peeped over the waistband of any bikini bottom. Well into my 20s, my beach uniform was always a one-piece, usually topped by an oversized T-shirt or tank top and shorts. I hated that moment when everyone sat down and disrobed, casually eyeing how the others looked nearly-naked, our brains registering a comparison to the culture’s ideal. The pressure of exposing my body in public was enough to convince even a sun- and sand-lover like me to stay on the cement.
I had an epiphany at 27, when I decided to say “f— it” and wear a size-16 bikini. Proudly. Publicly. I called myself a “body outlaw” and held my head high. Hey world, here’s a body you don’t usually see in a swimsuit. Get used to it.
Oddly, the biggest revelation was that NOBODY CARED. How liberating: I’d wasted so many years imprisoned by shame and fear of being ridiculed, when I could have been out frolicing in my dimple-thighed, two-piece glory.
Granted, the bikini had boy shorts and a generously-cut top. And I was at a southern Pennsylvania water park, not on a St.-Tropez yacht rocking a thong with the “glitterati” (who made up that word, anyway?). But for the ten years since then, I’ve publicly worn bikinis while ranging from size 10 to 16, and have encouraged people to challenge the idea that only certain body types have the right to bare arms…and legs, and thighs, and stomachs.
What kind of body is a “bikini body”? The enlightened answer: any kind that wants to be.
The other answer, which we’re all palpably aware of (and shamed en masse into obeying), is much more narrow. Flat stomach. Slightly jutting hip bones. Bronze skin. Unpuckered thighs.
In recent years, swimsuit issues have included conciliatory pages of “flaw”-disguising options. (Lycra: the 21st century corset!). I’m grateful for more flattering cuts, yes, especially the Marilyn Monroe-era throwbacks. I’ve since discovered a ton of awesome 1940s-inspired swimsuits that I encourage any fellow thick-chick to try, especially since they’re more feminine than the boxy boy-cut look, and more sophisticated than the Snookified loincloth-on-a-string.
In spite of the growing embrace of styles from the curvier pinup girl era, the mass market offerings continue to have a distinctly Malibu Barbie feel. I was disturbed this week when Disney actress Demi Lovato, 18, Tweeted a photo of herself in a small white bikini, crowing, “Here’s my bikini time body!” Lovato, the star of Camp Rock and Sonny with a Chance (which I’ve watched with my 11-year-old stepdaughter) was just released from a treatment center for cutting, anorexia, and bulimia.
According to People.com: “I’ve been working so hard to get healthy and fit,” Lovato, 18, Tweeted on Monday, linking to a photo of herself strutting in a teeny-weeny white bikini. “I can’t believe I’m about to [post] this but I’m so excited… Here’s my bikini time body!”
Yikes. Was nothing learned in treatment, Demi? What Lovato is really saying, I believe, is: “Hey, look at me. Am I okay? Please validate me.” It worked: she got an outpouring of Twitter support telling her how great she looked. But the whole point of recovery was missed. If that hole in her soul was really filled, she wouldn’t need to make such a desperate bid for outside approval of her body. Yet, People.com casts this move as “the Disney star [being] excited to show she has her life and physique under control.”
Control. Interesting choice of words, given that this is one of the driving forces of eating disorders.
I also feel raw embarrassment for the girl. In my own way, I know what it’s like to think you’re kinda hot stuff, only to be told that you’re not—before you’ve developed enough of an identity to dismiss the hurtful words. Still, I wish someone had snatched away Demi’s smartphone before she could hit “share”—if only for the sake of her fans. Saddling an 18-year-old with social responsibility for little girls’ self-esteem is a losing proposition—and unfair, I know. Yet, the confusing message is there in Lovato’s vulnerable face and strange, wrestler-girl stance: how you look matters more than how healthy you are. Looking good in a bikini is a sign of good mental and physical health.
The eating-disordered mentality is a lot harder to shed than the behaviors that accompany it. Lovato, like so many young women, seems like a genuinely talented and spunky person. She may have just caved to pressure, switched off her lights, and started focusing on her looks. Been there.
There’s nothing like “bikini season” to terrorize even the most talented woman into a spiral of shame and self-hatred. We don’t have to go there, but we’re gonna need some armor. What are you planning to do this year, if you’re someone who feels bad about herself during this season? How can you make a body-positive statement? Tell us!
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