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The beach, Swimsuits, and Summer Body Images

Monday, 22 June 2015 00:00  by Kristi C.

Summer has unofficially arrived as Memorial Day often signals the beginning of beach season. After Memorial Day, droves of sunbathers flock to the coast to roast in the sand and play in the waves. Of course, for many people, the most stressful part of a beach vacation happens before the beach chairs are loaded into the car. Often, the stress comes shortly after the vacation is booked when you realize that it is time for a new swimsuit. Even those of us who love shopping can be off put by the thoughts of purchasing a swimsuit. In an informal poll conducted with my ladies running group, swimsuit purchases were the most dreaded purchase of the season. According to those ladies, the stress and anxiety related with the experience is deep seated and culturally ingrained due to the images put out through the media of photo shopped bodies and airbrushed details. In all honesty, looking at the magazine racks in the check out lane, I would be surprised to find a single woman who does not stress out over swimsuit shopping.

Originally, swimsuits were designed to cover as much of the body as possible for modesty but as they have evolved to be more fashionable than utilitarian, they have also shrunk significantly. The original swimsuit from the 18th century fully covered the arms, legs, and most of the neck area. It was heavy and itchy, often made out of wool. When the suit was submerged in water, the water would pool inside the fabric to prevent it from clinging suggestively to the wearer. It was universally unflattering regardless of body type or size. Body hugging swimsuits would not appear until around 1920 and the first bikini came shortly thereafter following World War II. Those bikinis covered a lot more skin than their skimpier cousins cover today and model’s body shapes have changed greatly as well. Back in 1944, when the bikini was still new and Seventeen Magazine was first published, the average model was about 5’7” and weighed about 130 lbs. By comparison, today’s average model is 5’10” (taller than most American women) with an average weight of 115 lbs. That puts her BMI lower than the BMI of many women in impoverished developing countries and yet, her appearance is touted as the ideal that women should strive for.

Not only are the models taller and slimmer but also most, if not all, images are re-touched or photoshopped prior to being used in a magazine. Waists are pulled in to appear more narrow, thighs and hips are slimmed, cellulite is smoothed, and scars and blemishes are erased until the image more closely reflects the photographer’s angle and touch up artists’ skill than the physical beauty of the model. Images such as those perpetuate the cycle of body image issues young girls, teens, and women face when shopping for a swimsuit. Our body image is the perception WE have of our bodies as well as how WE perceive other’s opinions of our bodies. Perceived body image is psychological in nature, not based on fact but is, instead, influenced by self-esteem, imagination, emotions, and physical sensations of and about our bodies. These ideas are ultimately influenced by what we perceive to be standards of society.

The reality is, everybody has flaws and magazine covers simply do not reflect that. We, as women, do not need to compare our bodies to the photoshopped images publicized in the media. Each woman is an individual with unique characteristics and should be celebrated for those differences. We need to accept the fact that our bodies are already swimsuit ready and, as far as size goes, size only matters on the suit side of the partnership as nobody sees the size but you. If the suit fits, you should wear it with pride and embrace your body the way it is. Everything looks better with a little confidence.

This year, my group is handling swimsuit shopping a little differently. We are making a day of it and heading out together to support each other. After all, we have seen each other slog through mud, climb over obstacles, and jog through snow in a tutu. We have pushed, pulled, and cheered each other off the couch and down the road. I believe we can handle trying on a swimsuit or two. Oddly enough, I am looking forward to swimsuit shopping this year. I believe, for the first time in memory, I am finally swimsuit ready.

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