“Bikini Bodies” & The Ugh of Swimsuit Season

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!

More on ‘Bikini Bodies’:

Loving Your Body During Bathing Suit Season

The Right to Wear Bikinis: Who Owns It?

9 thoughts on ““Bikini Bodies” & The Ugh of Swimsuit Season

  1. @rebecca, I know exactly how you feel. I put on a lot of weight from college and being away from momma’s home cooking. I keep telling myself “I need to go back to my ‘normal’ weight”, but that hasn’t happened. I was determined at the end of the school year to take this summer to work out and lose weight, but then it hit me: why am I going to waste my summer starving myself? It’s not healthy, it’s not right, and it’s not me. Instead, I’m spending this summer accepting my body and spending my time doing fun, recreational sports, like rock climbing. I just went yesterday with my friend and we had a BLAST! At the end of the day, we were sweaty and gross, but we didn’t care at all. I think the true key is to just have fun. Weight issues should be the last of our worries!

  2. I put on some weight last year and haven’t lost it yet. I say “yet” because I have every intention of getting back to my “normal” weight. It’s an identity thing. I’m not supposed to weight this much, look the way that I do (read: out of control). In relative terms, I am a fairly average weight for my height and age. But I’ve always been afraid of “Average” and thin was never thin enough. Looking at pictures from my skinniest days, I realize that I didn’t look so great after all. I look much healthier, sexier, and confident with a little more meat on my bones. Bikini season is here, and I’m not ready for a bikini. But I may be ready next summer.

  3. I have been living in the south of France for the last 10 years and the pressure in summertime to look ‘hot’ in a bikini is HUGE…French people also have a tendency to stare at each other in a kind of ‘in your face’ way which is incredibly invasive of personal space, especially if wearing a bikini and dealing with body issues. It can take serious amounts of bravado to take your clothes off on a French beach!!!

    I DO wear a bikini, although at 42 and having had 4 kids I know many women here think I am ‘courageous’ and that ‘normally’ a woman like me ‘should’ wear a one-piece! (how could I dare to bare that mummy tummy wtf) but the rebel in me baulks at being told what to wear or how my body should look. I am also very proud of what my body has achieved, not ashamed of it’s maturity or it’s signs of use.

    My body, my life, my summer, my bikini… I do not have, nor do I want to have, control over whatever another person might think…I only have influence over my own thoughts and therefore if I ‘think’ I look great then I feel great. How I might be perceived by others is not relevant as it is filtered through their own preconceptions and limitations.

    Bravo to you for your liberation and for throwing off the baggy t-shirts :-)) body outlaw indeed!

    So this summer I will get the bikini out again and my pleasure in being myself is the greatest shield against the ignorance and disrespectful limited ideals of others…I do not see my body from a distance, a detached thing to be objectified…my body is the vessel for my soul, a physical vehicle to express my heart and spirit and each cell has the spark of my inner being glowing in it…how can I not be gorgeous?

  4. Well said, bravo! Just came back from my second adult swimming lesson, and let me tell you I hate, and I mean hate putting on a bathing suit. Every time I go to the pool I do battle with myself internally, my proud-and-defiant-self says, “I have every right to be here and I am beautiful”, while my colonized-believe-what-they’ve-told-you-self says, “everyone is looking at me and they are utterly disgusted. I have to do something about my bum and thighs, I wonder how much liposuction is?” I go anyway because my head and heart quietly know that I actually I do have a right to be there, but the whole process is exhausting. I love it when I see other curvy girls at the pool, so when I can’t do it for myself, I do it for women like me, so they know that they too can be and do whatever they want, where ever they want wearing whatever they want. Thanks for the post.

  5. Good point, Ashley! It’s true: I definitely made that assumption and I don’t know what the real deal is. I hope that she is indeed in a state of full health.

  6. I want to applaud you for the first half of this post. It’s great that you learned how to be confident with the body you have in a swimsuit and stop worrying about what other people are thinking. However, I am a little disturbed with your critque of Demi. You are making quite a few different assumptions about her and her overal state of mental health. Let’s step back and realize that no one knows her. We don’t know that she’s asking for validation by tweeting a photo of herself in a bikini. It amazes me how this young lady has been through a lot and people are still finding fault with every move she makes. It’s OK to be proud of your body and to show it off publicly and it doesn’t mean it’s focusing more on her body than anything else and it doesn’t mean she’s trying to seek validation or that she hasn’t recovered.

  7. THANK YOU! I so love this message! I’m so sick and tired of people pretending they’re gonna gouge their eyes out at the sight of a non-supermodel wearing a bikini. If the swimsuit FITS, then you can wear it! I’m more concerned with whether or not fat is popping out of a suit (the suit is the wrong cut or ill-fitting) than looking like a bone walking around in it. So you go ahead and rock your bikini because I certainly am. I just so happen to like two pieces better than one pieces for convenience, and despite what everyone believes, sometimes a bikini is better than a tankini because the fat can’t pop out from underneath.

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