What the hell does it even mean to have a “summer body”?
Several years ago my family went out to the dunes on Lake Michigan for the day. There were so many people, and I remember I spent most of the day laying under our beach umbrella reading.
It was in the midst of one of my many weight loss attempts, and I had been feeling pretty good about myself recently. But I still spent most of the day keeping myself as still as possible.
Now, just to be clear: I love reading, and it’s kind of my favorite way to spend a day. But I also spent my time that way because I was afraid to leave the safety of that umbrella.
It provided some semblance of privacy, a sense of protection from the gaze of everyone around us. And I was afraid that if I left that haven all eyes would suddenly be on me. Any movement would draw attention to my body. And even if no one said anything, I knew what people would think.
I knew, because I’ve had those thoughts, too.
- “That swimsuit is not flattering on her at all.”
- “No one wants to see that.”
- “What made her think she could pull that off?”
- “She should not be showing that much skin.”
Despite supposedly feeling good about myself I was still under the influence of the “summer body” myth.
So while the rest of my family splashed around in the lake, built sand castles, and buried each other in the sand, I laid under our umbrella and read my book.
Like I said before, it’s not like this was an awful way to spend the day. But would I have had more fun if I had let go and worried less about how others viewed my body? If I had let myself play and laugh?
What is the summer body myth?
Summer body, beach body, bikini body… Whatever you call it, the summer body myth is this idea that your body has to conform to a certain ideal in order to be “ready” for summer. Advertising this time of year focuses on messages to “slim down” and “tighten up” every part of your body.
(Except your butt. That needs to be bigger.)
This kind of advertising tells a specific story, of the woman who puts on an adorable 5 pounds over the winter because of the holiday food. And now she needs to buckle down, shed the extra weight, and sculpt every inch of her body so that she’s “ready” for summer.
But it also tells a much deeper story; one that I’ve felt in my bones since I was about 10 years old. It’s that story where if you don’t conform to this ideal (which is a ridiculous expectation for most of the world’s population) your body shouldn’t be seen in public. And the further your body is from the ideal, the greater the expectation is that you accept responsibility for keeping your body hidden.
Because summer clothes are more revealing, and heaven forbid an ounce of uncontrolled flesh be seen in public.
Where did the summer body myth come from?
The bikini body image has been around for a pretty long time. And nothing about its origin inspires much confidence.
Marketing Weird Weight Loss From the Get-Go
One article on The Cut points out that “the term bikini body was first popularized in a 1961 ad campaign by a chain of weight-loss salons called Slenderella International,” who claimed you “could drop several sizes simply by lying on vibrating tables.”
And the image has been used again and again over the years to sell various other weight loss schemes, from “flesh firming machines” to today’s unhealthy food restrictions and misleading exercise programs. I mean come on, are we really supposed to believe that every woman is capable of looking like that fitness model in the demonstration photos, and in two weeks to-boot?
Reinforcing Fatphobia & Sexism
Besides the fact that the bikini body image has always been used to tout scammy weight loss methods, the whole thing is rooted in hatred of fat bodies. And that comes down to societal expectations that women remain small and controlled. That we keep ourselves from taking up too much space.
A fat body, especially a fat female body, does exactly what it’s not supposed to do: “A fat body does not apologize for taking up space. A fat body is one that will not disappear. A fat body demands to be seen.” And so society demonizes fat bodies because they are deviant, because they refuse to conform.
And this doesn’t even touch on the impact made by other intersecting identities.
The rate at which a person is subjected to public harassment and violence (society’s most explicit control mechanisms) rises exponentially for those who don’t conform because of a combination of their race, physical ability, gender identity or presentation, sexual orientation, and so on.
And we, the owners of those infinitely diverse fat bodies, are left with the blame and the expectation that we’ll at least try to control them, like unruly children. Despite the fact that controlling the weight of one’s body is attempting to work directly against the evolutionary mechanisms that have kept our species alive for so long.
We will work hard to conform as much as we can. And if we can’t do that we’ll at least have the decency to hide. To keep ourselves covered so as not to offend the sensitivities of those with the genetic luck to conform to social expectations.
I need a sarcasti-font, y’all.
The summer body myth convinces us that we need to hide our bodies unless they meet the thin, white, cis-hetero, able-bodied ideal.
It’s a constant reminder that you don’t fit in, that you’re not welcome. At the same time, it lays the false expectation that there’s something you can do to change yourself enough that you could be welcome. It lays the responsibility for change at your feet, rather than pointing to the insipidly shitty way we treat non-conforming bodies in our society.
So we spend countless hours trying to make our bodies conform.
We spend billions of dollars trying to lose weight. A Marketdata LLC study, released in May of 2017, reports that the US weight loss market as a whole is now worth $66 billion. The average American adult spends $112,000 on their health and fitness over the course of their lifetime (and no, that doesn’t include medical bills).
And until that magical unicorn day when we’ve finally managed to whittle our bodies down to a socially acceptable package, we hide.
We wear clothing that hides our skin, and hopefully the ever-so-offensive curve of our fat, often at the expense of comfort. We sit off to the side, away from the fun, afraid to draw the attention and ridicule of others.
And even if we’re physically present, we miss out on beach day with the family.
Aren’t you tired of hiding and waiting?
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