Why this summer is time to defy false beauty standards and our own 'beach body brain'

Months of preparation can go into getting in to that bikini, but for what?

14 Apr 2019

“Oh I can’t eat that, I’ve got to be in a bikini in seven days”

The grimace, the tummy pat, the sigh.

How many times have we seen this scenario play out? Our friends looking at their own bodies in dismay - brilliant, healthy, functional bodies that house brilliant, wonderful, successful people- and yet which, the moment anyone suggests a beach holiday, are suddenly treated with derision.

Oh, this body? No, I cannot be seen in this body, not on the beach. How mortifying.

‘No carbs before Marbs’, ‘summer bodies are made in the winter’, ‘your bikini body starts here’, and that old favourite: ‘are you beach body ready?’ The onslaught of messaging about beach bodies, what constitutes one and what we should do to get one, are insidious. The anxiety it creates is mammoth, it’s giving us Beach Body Brain- that mental preoccupation bizarrely induced merely by the suggestion of a warm-weather holiday.

“I’ll diet for probably a month before,” says a friend, “I’ll also meticulously shop for bikinis that are flattering, get manicures and pedicures, obviously a wax and a spray tan. I’ll also hit the gym twice as hard.”

Preparing for a beach holiday is sometimes akin to training for the Olympics. Months of preparation can go into getting in to that bikini, but for what? There is no gold medal at the end of this, what are we in the running for here?

Of course, it’s not as simple as eye-rolling those who take the Beach Body seriously because, on some level, we all do. Stripping down to swimwear is daunting, it can make us feel vulnerable and exposed, no matter our body shape. We all have body hang ups. Just because my personal approach to getting a beach body is putting my body on a beach, doesn’t mean I don’t feel just the slightest bit uncomfortable, that I don’t – without thinking- find myself comparing myself to my friends, worrying that my tummy is too big, or that my muffin top is glaringly apparent over my bikini briefs.

But what causes this anxiety about our body really? It’s not as simple as the exposure swimwear necessitates, it anything, beachwear lays bare body image anxieties we have all year around, exacerbated by pervasive societal messaging.

“This is not necessarily something we are doing to ourselves, this is a societal message that we are being given,” says Holli Rubin, a psychotherapist, body-image specialist and mental-health practitioner, “The messaging is this is what a woman is supposed to look like, this is how we define beauty and what we think is acceptable, how narrowly it is defined. If you don’t see yourself represented- in fashion imagery or in the media- where does that leave you? If you’re not 5ft 10, blonde, skinny, you think: ‘where am I, how am I beautiful?’”

If you think of the beach body, it’s exactly that. That white, toned, bronzed, blonde goddess with predictably (and probably realistically) hungry eyes; the same formulaic figure that was plastered all over the tube in the controversial, and now banned, Beach Body Ready ads for a Protein World weight loss product.

Most of us are not born with body hang-ups, we have them thrust upon us by this dangerous, restrictive view of beauty that is broadcast to us daily. Think of the blissful happiness of children running on a beach- often completely starkers. If only we could somehow tap back into that youthful jubilation, and not spend our time on the beach agonising about the fact we don’t look like Kendall Jenner.

Yet, Rubin warns, children are starting to develop these hang ups earlier and earlier. It’s no doubt due to our favourite modern meddler: social media.

“It is not creating these issues, but it is exacerbating them,” she says, “It is impacting mental health hugely; the amount of this imagery, and the pace with which we are consuming it. Even if we know that so much of what we see is fabricated and photoshopped, it still seeps in and it still can make people feel so uncomfortable with how they look.”

Instagramis public enemy number one here. It is something Michaela Lydon, a mental health nurse who has worked predominantly with patients with eating disorders, frequently has to battle.

“It’s so worrying, how many people you see on Instagram who have changed their body with apps,” she says, addressing the fact that many of the bodies we see have also been augmented by surgery.

There is a responsibility implicit in these Instagram stars, with massive followings, primarily made up of young girls who devour these images obsessively, agonising over their own bodies in comparison. Should these stars have to admit to surgery and photoshop, the way they now have to legally proclaim #ad or #spon?

“Yes if you are an influencer, because you are literally influencing people!” says Lydon, “If you are going to put across a lifestyle and a body shape that young girls are trying to attain, you should have to be honest about how you actually attained it, instead of girls killing themselves to look a certain way.”

It’s something that actress and campaigner Jameela Jamil is strikingly adept at calling out. She frequently cries bullshit on photoshopped images- including her own- and is unafraid to call out celebrities for promoting weight loss products. She lambasted Kim Kardashian for advertising a diet-suppressant lollipop on Instagram in 2018 and this year, had this to say to Khloe Kardashian, who was promoting Jamil’s favourite punching bag: Flat Tummy Tea; “Own up to the fact that you have a personal trainer, nutritionist, probable chef, and a surgeon to achieve your aesthetic, rather than this laxative product.”

Jamil has started a campaign against these companies- many of which are banned from advertising in the UK, but the damage done by these endorsements is seismic. Though the Kardashians are just a small part of a larger problem, their combined social media reach is a whopping 534.2million. Their actions – be that photoshopping or promoting appetite suppressors- come with weighty consequences.

But it is not just the Kardashians, or their influencer cohort, who are guilty of addling our Beach Body Brain. The media, fashion brands and fashion editorials- all play a part in making us mentally dread that bikini holiday.

Times are, however, changing, and the tide is turning against unrealistic and unrepresentative beauty standards. Not to toot our own horn here, but think of our Spring/Summer print edition, and the glorious un-photoshopped beach photoshoot with model and body positivity activist Charli Howard. Her gorgeous body is there, dimples, rolls and all, on a beach. And what a stunning beach body it is too. The significance of such a shoot is not lost on us, because they are still, tragically, in the minority.

ASOS and other retailers have started to bend this way too- showing stretch marks and cellulite on models, as well as hiring models of all shapes and sizes. The Body Positivity movement is also gathering pace, encouraging women (and men) to love the body they’re in – no matter how big it is, no matter what people have to say about it.

“It is so great that brands are beginning to show lots of different sizes, the same way that we need to see different skin tones too,” says Lydon who sees such diversity as a key factor in dismantling Beach Body Brain.

After all, the niggles we feel about our body – on the beach or otherwise- are fed to us by these images, so it helps to be exposed to as many different bodies as we can, so we do not measure our own against an impossible yardstick. Yet, despite a more positive influx of diverse imagery, there are many who will suffer paralysing anxiety as a result of their body image.

“Body image is how we feel about how we look,” says Rubin, “It is a subjective experience. We often have a distorted view of ourselves and people’s reassurance can sometimes help but sometimes it doesn’t. I see our perspectives on bodies and food and our relationship with them as being on a spectrum. It is complicated. But if we can see that we all have distorted perspectives around food and bodies we will find ourselves somewhere on this spectrum, likely in the middle.… then there are those who fall on the extremes where there is body dysmorphia and eating disorders and that’s where things get more serious becoming more of a mental health issue, that needs a different type of treatment.”

Lydon works with such patients, and says that, even leading up to full blown eating disorders, there are tell-tale signs of extreme anxiety with body image. She cites those who avoid situations like the beach, or those who crash diet and obsessively exercise- as two such extremes.

“It would be changing your everyday life because of it; things you would normally do, if it wasn’t for the way you look.”

Beach Body Brain can, therefore, tragically cause us to avoid the actual beach. How unutterably sad, that our fixation with body perfection, should lead us to miss out on some of life’s greatest moments.

“We need to be mindful of our anxieties and try and get to that place of acceptance - recognising that we are actually lucky to be in the bodies that we are in and we’re lucky to be able to enjoy a holiday,” says Rubin, “If we end up being so stressed and anxious about a holiday, we’re missing the point of a holiday, aren’t we?”

So try and think of it this way: getting your body on that beach is not a goal to be starved, bronzed or altered to achieve. It is a hard-won act of defiance - against false beauty standards and against your own Beach Body Brain.