On “beach bodies”

On “beach bodies”

There’s a weird cultural phenomenon where, before a holiday or the summer, people suddenly start trying to lose weight, solely for the purpose of looking thinner on the beach and in their holiday photos. Bikini bodies, beach bodies, summer bodies – whatever you call it, clearly there’s dissonance for many between the body they live in most of the time and the public body that they want others to see (or are less stressed about others seeing). The idea that anyone should be altering themselves, often through harmful crash diets, solely to lose a few kilograms before ‘presenting’ themselves to the world is obviously problematic.

My real body. (No cookies were turned down in preparation for this holiday)

I have written before on this blog about the harmful aspects of online fitness culture, particularly from a body-image angle. Having spent years in a world where dieting was literally required and generally being a young woman, it is clear to me that body image and self-esteem are crucial and relevant topics of conversation. I know so many people who are unhappy with their bodies, ranging from mild dissatisfaction to real self-loathing. How we talk about bodies is important. How we treat our bodies is important. And treating your body as something that must be changed, primarily slimmed down, before being allowed to see the light of day is bad news bears for self-esteem.

I am writing this from the Seychelles, an archipelago of islands off the east coast of Africa. They are full of incredible nature, wildlife and many, many beaches. Sitting on the beach while reading a book about body positivity got me fired up to write the post that’s been sitting on my ‘blog post ideas’ list for months.

The Seychelles is obscenely beautiful. How YOU look while you’re here is irrelevant in comparison.

When I was a lightweight rower, we also lived on this timeline. We would bulk over the winter and cut weight into the summer. This was out of our hands; the main racing season occurs through the summer so being your lightest then was not a choice. There are even two different racing weights, a ‘winter’ weight and a summer weight, created out of recognition of the fact that everyone benefits from a little extra body fat during the cold winter months. While we were on the schedule because of regulation, many athletes – many of whom are part of online fitness culture – also bulk and cut by the seasons. However, with no third party making the rules, there’s no reason to necessarily do your training in this way. People do it because they want to look skinny and toned on the beach and in the bikini instagrams that bring in the big likes. @GraceFitUK, mega fitness influencer, literally called her summer series ‘get shreddy for summer’. She then encouraged her followers to share their methods for ‘shredding’ into summer so they could all do it together. It’s not taboo to admit you’re losing weight to look good on the beach. It’s seen as perfectly normal. Why wouldn’t you want to look your best when everyone will see you?

Therein lies the crux of the issue. ‘Your best’ is still synonymous with ‘your skinniest’. Your best self remains the thinnest version of you. Putting on weight over winter is just about manageable because you’re mainly covered up, plus it has the ultimate consequence of making you look even better next summer.

Newsflash – your best self is not the smallest you. It is the happiest you. It is the you who is doing what they want and not wasting their time obsessing about their looks. Getting lots of likes on a cute picture of you in a bikini might feel good in the moment, but the bigger picture of being someone who is concerned with what other people think of their body has much further-reaching negative consequences. The social media likes, getting checked out on the beach – these aren’t meaningful interactions. They don’t have any substance. Feeling free and confident enough to swim in the ocean, eat the local cuisine or get sweaty riding a bike is the real joy of experiencing a new place.

To spent great experiences concerned with how you look is such a passive position. It plays into every tired stereotype of women being there to look pretty and nothing else. Looking pretty doesn’t tend to be very fulfilling. It is clear where this impulse comes from – beauty and desirability are currency, both socially and, in some cases, financially, so it’s does feel like you are more ‘valuable’ when it is made clear that you are desirable. Truly removing yourself from this narrative and putting a stop to caring about whether or not you have abs might result in a fewer glances at the beach (I cannot emphasise enough that it does not matter if you have abs or not. Almost nobody does. You can do everything you want in your life and never think about the definition of your midsection. You can find people who love you and care for you even though they have never seen the outlines of your abdominal muscles – promise). The media influences everyone and caring less about having a socially desirable body might mean that less people immediately see you and have the reaction that says ‘that person is sexy’. Crucially, this doesn’t mean you aren’t sexy. It might mean you aren’t sexy in the way everyone is programmed to think sexy manifests. That’s okay. Fortunately, attention from strangers is a lot less important that living a life true to yourself and being kind to your body.

This is the fun stuff. Worrying about your waistline is not.

It is worth noting that I am young, thin and white so fundamentally meet the basic criteria for what an ‘attractive’ person looks like in the eyes of our culture. But I still know so many young, thin, white, beautiful women who seriously struggle with insecurity. I say this not to diminish the experiences of those who fall outside of the standard beauty narrative, but to highlight the scale of the issue. Even people who, for all intents and purposes, look how society says you should look, still feel inadequate. With this in mind, to feel confident and beautiful and love your body when you are clearly told that your size, your skin, your age or your ability in not valuable or beautiful is an enormous task. My heart goes out to anyone who rails against this bullshit all the time, not just from inside their head but from the outside world as well. You deserve better. Everyone deserves better.

This kind of thinking perpetuates the idea that your normal, everyday self is not acceptable to be shown. It’s the same mechanism that has people aggressively dieting before their wedding day. It creates a line between the real you and the public you. The problem is that viewing yourself this way subconsciously reinforces in your own mind that the real you is not enough. This is wrong. The real you can be the public you. You don’t owe anyone a skinnier version of yourself to enjoy travel, the summer or any important moment in your life.

The benefit of not giving a shit about losing weight before going on the beach is freedom. Freedom to love yourself unconditionally, in every outfit, in every season. It frees up the time, money and mental energy that goes into dieting for you to put toward other things – things that are based in joy rather than avoiding a negative, the dreaded ‘not being super toned while on the beach’. You don’t have to do anything to yourself before taking a holiday, going for a swim, wearing a bikini or wearing a pair of shorts. Don’t be part of a culture that enables this way of thinking, which puts weight on a pedestal and encourages you to change yourself before existing in public. You can do everything you want to just as you are, right now. The everyday you, the real you, deserves to feel sand on toes and sea on skin regardless of what you ate the week before your trip.

Next time you travel, it’s time to take ‘lose weight’ off your pre-trip to-do list.

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