Body-shaming is all around us, all the time. It feels, though, as if it’s particularly acute in the summer. Your body has to be thin, tanned, hairless, free of cellulite, and your face must be impeccably made-up even in sweltering heat via specially-purchased summer beauty products. And you definitely aren’t allowed to sweat.
Even when you accept and understand that these are completely arbitrary and sexist cultural requirements, actually doing something about it feels like an intimidating challenge. I can’t tell you the number of times edgily simplistic Twitter and Tumblr posts have told us all that the way to get a bikini body is to ‘have body, wear bikini.’ It’s fairly obvious it’s not that easy, though. If we weren’t in a culture that reviled fatness, body hair, scars, body shapes that aren’t precisely proportioned hourglasses then yes, it would simply be a question of ‘have body, wear bikini’.
I don’t think I have what many people would call a dream body. I’m visibly fat, with thick, dark body hair. I don’t shave my armpits ever, and I shave my legs maybe once or twice a year as the mood takes me. I have large surgical scars that cut across my stomach and break up any chance of a ‘smooth silhouette.’
I’m now in a position where I’m happy to wear a tiny bikini that shows all my abundant near-radioactively pale fat without shaving my legs and underarms or having my ‘bikini line’ (read: pubic hair) waxed for the occasion. Did it happen overnight? Hell no.
One year I started to go out with bare legs under skirts. The next I bought a high-waisted bikini and didn’t shave my legs or underarms when I wore it on the beach. This year I’ve found a particularly minuscule tie-side zebra print bikini that I’m looking forward to wearing without fear.
For anyone who knows the tyranny of summertime body-shaming is entirely socially constructed but doesn’t know how to do anything about it, I would recommend a try-and-see process. It’s so easy to get so caught up in the lies about how a woman’s body should look that that we’re too scared to test our personal limits. Giving yourself a chance to go out in public without shaving your legs or without worrying that your fat thighs or your upper arms are on show is the only way to prove to yourself that, in all likelihood, nothing bad will happen to you.
When I’m holding onto a railing on the bus and I’m wearing a sleeveless top, I get a couple of surprised looks or bemused whispers among teenage girls because of my unshaven underarms. When I’m out with my crop top on exposing my many inches of wobbly abdominal flesh, people stare like they’ve never seen anything like it before. And maybe they haven’t.
The reason you think it’s a big deal is because there are so few positive representations of fat women in swimwear in the media. The reason you think you can’t have body hair and be attractive is because you so seldom see representations of female body hair which are framed as attractive. Being fat and confident in a bikini seems unthinkable to many because in films and TV, you put a fat woman in a bikini so you can laugh at her. But it doesn’t have to be like that – I promise!
Although it shouldn’t be, every time you subvert cultural norms about how a body should look in public, that’s a victory. Even if the idea of photographing yourself in swimwear is unthinkable, maybe try and build up to a point where recording your victory is something you want to do. I, for one, know I’ve had lots of comments and emails saying other women have felt empowered to get more of their bodies out more publicly as a result of seeing me and other fat bloggers doing the same- and publicising our efforts. Absolutely no one has a duty to put themselves in a position where they feel uncomfortable, but the more of us go out there and impose our so-called subversive image on the general public, the less uncomfortable that experience becomes, for everyone.
Give yourself a chance to figure out exactly what you want to be doing with your body, what makes you feel beautiful, what makes you feel empowered. Dip your toe in the water and see if you like the ripples. Maybe even start this summer. It’s not easy, but it’s not as hard as you might think.
Bethany Rutter is a fat activist, blogger, DJ and journalist, and writes a blog about bodies and clothes at archedeyebrow.com.
Photo: Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería via Flickr
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