When the sun comes out of its winter hole, we, too, come out of hiding, shedding our cozy layers and reaching out to embrace the warmth the summer months so graciously offer to us. We grill out on the porch, head down to the beach, lounge by the pool, and roll around in the grass.
All in the comfort of our skimpiest bikinis.
The sudden realization that “bikini season” is soon to be in full-swing flips a switch in many women’s brains. Men are affected, too—the term “beach body” is non-discriminating; however, high school and college women reliably report greater body dissatisfaction than do men (Bernett et al., 2001; Fallon & Rozin, 1985; Heatherton et al., 1995; Leon et al., 1993). Suddenly, regardless of what we were doing, how we were eating, or what our workout schedule was, it’s time. Time to get in shape. Time to start eating right. Time to get our shit together. My question is: why? Why have we become so obsessed with how our bodies look while we prance in the sand and frolick in the waves? Why do we worry about how we look compared to all of the equally self-conscious people around us? Why do we wrap ourselves up tight in our towels if we feel our body isn’t “ready?”
How to get a bikini body: put a bikini on your body.
We have been brainwashed to think that it is of the utmost importance to “look the part” in order to wear a bathing suit. After months of our bodies being covered up by sweaters and coats, we are incredibly frightened by the fact that the sun will soon strip us down to the bare necessities of apparel, leaving us utterly exposed. Exposing our bodies to the world is not ideal…if they’re not “perfect.”
The ever-changing body ideal
Fashion, music, films—everything in pop culture evolves, and body ideals are no exception. In other words, the way society tells us our bodies “should” look changes over time. Pamela K. Keel (2005) elaborates on the past century of the changing body ideals:
…the Roaring Twenties represented a time of unprecedented freedom for women following ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many women worked outside of the home to help feed their families…The ideal of feminine beauty during this time was thin (e.g., Katherine Hepburn). The preadolescent figures of flappers represented a direct contract to the hourglass shape produced by turn-of-the-century Victorian corsets. Following the end of World War II…women were expected to return to their roles as mothers and wives. Ideal figures returned to an hourglass shape that emphasized the presence of breasts and hips (e.g., Marilyn Monroe). The next phase of the revolution for women’s independence came during the 1960s with the development of birth control pills, the sexual revolution, and the emergence of the feminist movement. Coinciding with demands for women’s rights and freedom came an ideal of thinness that seemed to demand that women be free of their traditionally feminine shape. (p. 61)
What is the current body ideal, then? A sort of hybrid woman with impossibly mismatched features—a petite, but leggy woman, thin and flat-tummied, with an ample bosom and grabbable bottom…her symmetrical, clear-skinned face is framed with long, silky hair, and she stuns any living creature she encounters with her blinding smile, button nose, and fluttery eyelashes. She is tanned year-round, and she has no cellulite or scars. In other words, she is the product of Photoshop. Now more than ever, women are fighting for their equal rights, and yet, the body ideal is an all but unobtainable, doll-like figure. There’s nothing freeing about that.
Sex it up
With sex becoming less taboo by the second—remember when there was no nudity on TV? Yeah, not a thing anymore—the overt sexualization of women is becoming increasingly easy for advertisers and marketers. Be it a commercial for a fast-food restaurant or a print ad for perfume, women’s bodies are consistently tossed in the mix for a hearty serving of sexual imagery…because sex sells.
Some of you might be rolling your eyes by now. “Commercials and ads don’t affect me at all,” you might groan. No offense, but you’re wrong. Referring again to Keel’s 2005 book:
The sole purpose of the multi-billion-dollar advertising business is to convince people that there is something they need to have…By creating the impression that one is deficient in some way that will limit prospects for affiliation, advertisements and the media can create a need to subscribe to certain beauty ideals…by establishing an unattainable ideal, a constant market for products is created. According to Kilbourn (1987), the presence of body dissatisfaction in the majority of adolescent girls and young adult women is a necessary evil to turn those same women into good consumers. Notably the quest for thicker eyelashes, luxurious hair, and whiter teeth does not appear to have significant psychiatric consequences. However, the quest for a perfect body may. (p. 63)
Creating an apparent void in a woman’s life is the most effective way to convince her to buy something to fill the void. This also applies to pointing out a problem—particularly, a problem with her appearance—that needs solving, that can be solved with a product or service. I remember joking with friends about our armpits when Dove came out with their bizarre deodorant that “improved the look of underarms.” Because THAT’S a cause I can get behind!
In addition, experimental studies have supported a causal relationship between media images and body dissatisfaction (Groesz et al, 2002; Heinberg & Thompson, 1995; Stice & Shaw, 1994). So, yes, the images constantly being shoved in our faces do have an effect on our body image. We are far more likely to be dissatisfied with our bodies when we are exposed to images of women that look nothing like us in borderline-pornographic advertisements, TV shows, etc. If you haven’t noticed, the amount of scantily-clad women in the media increases tenfold in the warmer months, including in the plethora of programs directly related to weight loss, be it diet pills, exercise programs, or shows like The Biggest Loser.
Is this all men’s doing?
Put plainly, no. But they certainly play a role.
Our desire to become fitter for “bikini season” does mirror men’s higher standards in the summer months. A 2008 study found that heterosexual men did not change their standards for facial beauty seasonally, but their scores for attractiveness of body shape and breasts did change—with the lowest scores being given in the summer. According to Pawlowski (2008),
We suggest that the observed seasonality is related to the well-known ‘contrast effect’. More frequent exposure to women’s bodies in warmer seasons might increase men’s attractiveness criteria for women’s body shape and breasts. (p. 1079)
Fascinating. The real question, I suppose, is: are we [women] affected? This is not to point a finger of blame at men, as this phenomenon can be very much mental and personal, with women often disregarding even positive opinions of their peers; many women remain extremely critical of themselves despite support and encouragement from loved ones.
It is important to point out that there are differences across cultures in what men deem attractive. Interestingly, new research has also revealed that much of what is considered attractive in women is actually learned, rather than just biological or instinctual, as previously believed.
A real catastrophe
Regardless of factors behind the desire to lose weight and look a certain way on the beach/at the pool/in a sun dress, it’s a problem. A wise man once said: “comparison is the thief of joy.” We are taking away from our own happiness when we pick ourselves apart, wishing we could have Susie’s legs or Jenny’s boobs. We wish we could lose the fat around our hips and lift our booties. We want to look good, be sexy, be wanted—like the objectified women we see on every billboard, movie screen, and magazine page. It is now, seemingly, a good thing to be a sexual object.
Even if a woman’s main goal is not to be sexually attractive and desired (at least not in her mind), there is an overwhelming “need” to get in the best shape of their lives for summer. Perhaps they’re in a wedding or going on a trip to an exotic location, (just think about all the pictures!) or perhaps they just want to walk the pier with confidence. It all comes back to their body image—not their body.
Having a pre-existing mental disorder adds another degree of severity to this phenomenon. For example, those who suffer from anxiety often have a tendency to catastrophize every situation they find themselves in. Such tendencies can make winter fat gain seem like the end of the world, making cutting (losing fat) seem like the only solution, and being “thin enough” to be the end-all, be-all of their existence. An anxious woman might picture the worst-case scenario; for example, she may picture herself running into every single Victoria’s Secret Angel whilst hitting it off with the man of her dreams on the beach. The man, predictably, loses focus of the anxious, far-from-perfect woman and, mouth agape, follows the elusive Angels into the water and meets his death by drowning as they frolick topless in the waves. Yep, you guessed it: the anxious woman is me, and this is something I actually saw happening in my mind.
Is there hope for us?
The first step to putting a stopper in this phenomenon is to spread awareness of it. It is my hope that, in pointing out the science behind our psychological tendencies to be dissatisfied with our bodies, we can begin to address some possible solutions. I propose a few simple steps:
- Learn to recognize irrational thoughts in yourself and talk yourself out of them. Though it is impossible to turn them off completely, using your logical brain to calm some of the storm can be helpful.
- Learn to recognize similar irrational thoughts in others, and offer your empathy to them. Tell them you know how they feel. Offer advice. Link them to this article (lol).
- If images are upsetting you or making you feel inadequate, turn off the television, put down the magazine, or unfollow the Instagram user posting them. We cannot hope to remove all of the culprits at once, so it is best to remove yourself from them when you can.
- Empower other women by spreading confidence and love. Encourage your friends, clients, and social media followers to find and share something that they love about themselves. Promote self-acceptance by sharing images that contrast with those of the “body ideal.”
- Shut down summer body anxiety by taking the bikini issue out of the equation. Share things that have nothing to do with bodies at all. Share recipes for summer BBQs, your favorite summer spots in your hometown, or summertime stories from your childhood.
It is my hope that, in time, negative body image will be a thing of the past. Being healthy and happy will take priority over being sexy and sultry. Loving ourselves will be the norm. Summer will be everyone’s favorite season, and the beach will never cause anxiety for anyone. Except, you know, if you’re afraid of sharks.
If you liked this post, please check out last week’s: The Problem With Strong is the New Skinny.
Bernett, H. L., Keel, P. K., & Conoscenti, L. M. (2001). Body type preferences in Asian and Caucasian college students. Sex Roles, 45, 867-878.
Fallon, A. E., & Rozin, P. (1985). Sex differences in perceptions of desirable body shape. Journal of Abnormal Psychlogy, 94, 102-105.
Heatherton, T. F., Nichols, P., Mahamedi, F., & Keel, P. (1995). Body weight, dieting, and eating disorder symptoms among college students, 1982 to 1992. American Journal of Psychiatry, 152, 1623-1629.
Groesz, L. M., Levine, M. P., & Murnen, S. K. (2002). The ffect of experimental presentation of thin media iahges on body satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 31, 1-16.
Heinberg, L. J., & Thompson, J. K. (1995). Body image and televised images of thinness and attractiveness: A controlled laboratory investigation. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 14, 325-338.
Keel, P. K. (2005). Eating Disorders. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.
Leon, G. R., Fulkerson, J. A., Perry, C. L., & Cudeck, R. (1993). Personality and behavioral vulnerabilities associated with risk status for eating disorders in adolescent girls. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102, 438-444.
Pawlowski, B. (2008). Men’s Attraction to Women’s Bodies Changes Seasonally. Perception, 37 (7) 1079-1085. doi: 10.1068/p5715
Stice, E., & Shaw, H. E. (1994). Adverse effects of the media portrayed thin-ideal on women and linkages to bulimic symptomatology. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 13, 288-308.