I say this with reluctance because I don’t want to sound too much like a Cathy comic strip, but bathing suit season can be difficult. All of the careful staging and camouflaging you can do with clothes — a belt here, a slip there, a high-waisted hot short never — is undone the second you strip down to a bikini. The love handles, meaty thighs, stretch marks and cellulite are all on display for the world to see. If you have any body insecurities, this is the pretty much the worst nightmare. After all, during sex, you can always dim the lights — not a possibility while you’re ankle-deep in lapping waves or splayed out on a dock.
A recent story by Rebecca Willis in More Intelligent Life – “Far From Itsy-Bitsy” — takes on the dissatisfaction and self-loathing so many women feel any time they bust out the bikini. Writes Willis: “For many women, the prospect of a beach holiday is like getting an invitation to a wonderful party with fantastic people in a beautiful setting, and then seeing that it says ‘dress: underwear.’ It ought to be an unalloyed pleasure to be on a beach in the warm sun: not quite naturism, but still a communing of the body with nature that modern life mostly precludes. So why is the clear blue horizon so often clouded by a flicker of self-doubt? It’s that modern malaise again, body image…We live in a world that records and distributes images as never before, so that the freakish images of womanhood the media pumps out begin to seem normal. This is the time of year to remind yourself that they are not — neither the size-zero model nor the girl on page three.”
Very few women, it seems, are immune from concerns about their appearance in a bathing suit. (Save for the one friend I have whose roommate apparently eats meals in a bikini, but only when they have company.) I recently saw images of Nigella Lawson, the food guru long considered one of the UK’s sexiest women, in a “burkini,” a full-body bathing suit that both protects the wearer from the sun’s rays and prying eyes, and also makes her look like she is wearing a tent from Mountain Equipment Co-op. Of course, I would probably be more reluctant to strip down if I knew that the least flattering pictures of me were going to end up spread across the Internet, instead of simply untagged on Facebook. But it goes to the point that most women, despite our strength and independence, regardless of professional and relationship success, no matter how confident we are or how healthy our attitude toward sex, still feel vulnerable and judged when we’re wearing two little pieces of stretchy material in a situation where we’re usually supposed to be relaxing.
“Feeling good in a bikini — or, better still, forgetting we’re wearing one — is about getting used to how we are,” writes Willis. “Most of what makes us ourselves, as Michael Jackson helpfully demonstrated, is not subject to successful alteration: our height, build and colouring are life companions. Unless you are obese, diet and exercise change only the margins: you still look like you. More or less toned, perhaps, a bit curvier or a bit leaner, but basically you. So let’s not waste time agonising.”