I recently bought my first new bathing suit in nearly a decade. I agonized over purchasing it for days, adding and deleting it from my online shopping cart. I had survived this long without swimming at the beach: What was another eternity? When it arrived in the mail, I left the parcel by my door for a week. Sometimes, I’d walk past it and lift my shirt slightly, prodding my stomach at the sides. I watched video after video on YouTube of “mid-size” girls trying on swimsuits and talking about body positivity.
I knew I was being ridiculous, but I also couldn’t seem to stop myself. I wanted to feel galvanized. Finally, late one Friday night, I eased the slippery suit out of the plastic, put it on, and stood in front of my closet mirror. I waited for confidence to arrive, but I couldn’t stop staring at the way my flesh puffed out around the suit’s side cut-out. I had no control over it; I felt like crying.
Feminists have long pushed for better body representation in advertising and media. We don’t just want “curvy” representation — a marketing label that does little for inclusivity. We’re past that. In 2019, we want different types of thin and fat; we want the near-endless size variations in between. We want to see racial diversity but also diversity of ability. We want to see women who use mobility devices, pregnant women, women with body hair, and women with scars. Hell, an Aerie campaign last year even featured a woman with a stoma bag.
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Behind all of this is a radical pushback against the old Cosmo-informed idea of a “bikini body.” Search the term now on Google, and you’re just as likely to find a feminist meme or article that archly declares that “every body is a bikini body.” It’s both urgent and imperative that we change the narrative about our own bodies — if, that is, we’re dedicated to building gender equality for girls.
Consider that, by Grade 10, girls are three times more likely than boys to be depressed, something that can stem both from negative body image and low self-esteem. A Girls Action Foundation report found that less than two-thirds of the Canadian girls from Grades 6 to 10 who have a (medically defined) healthy body weight believe that they do. What’s more, the number of high-school girls who believe they’re quote-unquote “too fat” is double the number of those whose body-mass index indicates they’re overweight. (Let’s also take a moment to remember that BMI is a flawed way of measuring “good bodies” anyway.)
Across the country, more than 20 per cent of girls are trying to lose weight by Grade 10. Research shows that Canadian women and girls who spend 20 hours or more online per week, outside of work or school, are three times more likely to report body dissatisfaction than those who spent an hour or less online. Thank you, Instagram.
So, yes, all of this is why the “love your body” mantras that reappear every summer are more than trite assurances or hollow advertising slogans. And, yet, the hate-your-body/love-your-body messaging is so deeply ingrained in society, and in us, that it often feels as if we will never win. Take what happened to plus-size model Ashley Graham last year and the depressing lesson it teaches about the fact that women’s bodies are policed, no matter what. She felt the need to speak out after facing intense criticism on social media for working out and, apparently, losing weight. People were angry that she didn’t look as big. People mocked her for going to the gym, saying she would never be skinny, so why try. Nobody seemed willing to consider that she may just like the activity.
So, as much as I want to endorse the idea that every body is beautiful, including mine, it isn’t my new credo. This summer, I’m trying to embrace the idea of body neutrality. The movement has been gaining ground in recent years and offers a slight twist on the positivity movement. Rather than asking us to focus on 24/7 love, which can have the strange side effect of making people feel bad about feeling bad or wanting to change their bodies, the movement promotes acceptance. As a recent article in Bust magazine put it, “The only thing body neutrality really encourages women to do is to love their bodies enough to try to care for them.”
This idea of taking care doesn’t involve obsessing over numbers on a scale or adopting an all-kale diet. It can mean regular check-ups at the doctor, being mindful of mental health, and moving your body in whatever way you like. At its heart, this idea is about focusing on your achievements, not on how you look. As Beyond Beautiful author Anuschka Rees has explained, body-positive thinking maintains that you should feel good about yourself because you know you’re beautiful; neutrality asserts that how a person feels should have nothing to do with appearance. It’s a way of breaking the beauty cycle.
So, this summer, I’m trying to enjoy the feeling of my body moving through water — and not obsess over how it looks while I’m doing it.