The last time I went on a traditionally beachy spring break, I was 14 years old. I was a freshman in high school, invited to spend a week in Florida with my best friend and her family. We tried to trick the cute bartender into thinking we were 18 (we didn't want drinks, we just wanted him to like us) and went hunting for sea turtles after sundown (no luck on either count).
We were also allowed to use her family's fancy new DSLR camera, so needless to say, we took full advantage.
It's freakish and dreamlike to look back on those photos now. It feels like I'm trespassing on a stranger's consciousness, her secret inner life, because it doesn't feel like me in those photos—although I remember all those moments vividly. I remember thinking I was extremely fashion-forward mixing stripes and florals (plus throwing in a statement yellow belt to tie it all together?? Forget about it. I was basically Anna Wintour). I remember deeming those duck photos acceptable to post on Facebook because I thought my legs looked skinny. I remember cringing when I saw any photo of myself in a bathing suit.
I mean, I have photographic evidence: I was a normal-sized human girl. Just an adolescent nugget trying to enjoy warm weather with my best friend. But as I said, I remember it all vividly. Throughout the entire trip, I was crippled with anxiety. I could not lie flat on the sand for one single moment without actively picturing how my body looked from every angle.
Oh, and if it wasn't enough that I live inside a hyper-sensitive flesh prison with the uncanny ability to recall every nuance of past pain and embarrassment at any given moment, I also obsessively document my every thought.
Putting aside how laughable it is that I thought midnight was too late to be pondering deeply existential questions (it's literally 2:12 AM as I'm writing this), reading that last sentence now is like getting hit with an emotional laser. "I don't exactly have a beach bod." I was 14 years old. 14 years old. I could barely pass for a sentient potato, and I was already evaluating my body as unacceptable to societal standards.
In our culture’s current movement towards body positivity, one might think that this concept would finally be rejected—but while there are bloggers and activists who speak out against the “beach body” myth on social media, it has never seemed to fizzle out of popular use. The term is just as pervasive now as it was at midnight on April 5, 2010.
I am now 21 years old and obsessed with myself. Seriously, my level of self-involvement almost seems concerning at times. I literally use Tinder to swipe through my own photos and think about what a catch I am.
And yet! I've just returned from a Spring Break trip to Jamaica, my first beachy vacation in seven years—that's seven whole years of growth, maturation, time to learn about and reject bullshit social constructs—and I've realized I fell victim to the same exact fear that my 14-year-old self fretted about in her (weirdly adorned with furniture illustrations?) journal.
I posted the above Instagram during our second full day in Jamaica (and managed to rack up my highest number of likes ever, thank u very much. I think it was a combination of the color editing, the tropical authenticity of the coconut, and my enduringly charming dimples).
But guess what! I only decided on that photo because I didn't like the way I looked in these ones:
As any masterful social media sorceress would know, the best solution to an undesirable selfie is often the most simple. Just throw on a transparent-ish sweater thing (black, obviously, because it's chic and flattering) and voila! I no longer need to worry about my soft lil belly kinda spilling over the edge of my bottoms, or catching my arm at a less-than-ideal angle.
At the time, I did not even hesitate to rule out those photos. Obviously posting an "unflattering" photo of my body was out of the question!
And the worst part was that, after seeing those photos, I began to question my audacity to wear a bikini in public. I generally lean towards one-piece suits (they're comfortable, pragmatic and, God bless, they're trendy now) but I really wanted to give my pasty white skin some TLC. I even played it safe by wearing high-waist bottoms—but now I began to panic. I was defying the “beach body” rules I had become so accustomed to. This suit still showed too much of my figure; my bulbous body type would be unacceptable to flaunt like this.
I am a little ashamed that this poisonous way of thinking continues to pollute my brain so unconsciously—that I continue to insist on performing these gendered roles and bending to the unrealistic expectations that surround us. I try to be the first to remind my friends that they need not obsess over their appearances; that all bodies are good bodies; that self-debasing thoughts serve no purpose except to stunt and strand you on islands of doubt. Because I have spent so much time criticizing myself, it physically pains me to watch other women do the same.
Throughout high school, there was hardly anything I wouldn't have tried in order to mold my body into a form that it would never naturally take. I hated my wide hips and the way they protruded from the tops of ill-fitting low-rise jeans. I hated the little pouch sitting on my stomach that never went away, no matter how many sit-ups I did. And while I have grown to accept these "imperfections" over time, it's also largely because I learned to adapt my style to hide them.
Don't get me wrong: we have every right to decorate ourselves in a way that we are comfortable with, regardless of fashion magazines and "What To Wear For Your Body Type" sections. There is nothing pleasant about seeing yourself compared to a pear.
But also, fuck it! Guys, I love pants that cover my belly button but I also love my little pouch!! And I should be okay with other people seeing it because literally, who cares!!!! It's not my responsibility to be physically pleasing to anyone. And my body's only job is to keep me healthy and safe, not to adhere to arbitrary rules of "flattering" fabrics and skeletal shapes.
So please, let's retire the term "beach body." Let's stop robbing people of the joys of sun and sand and saltwater, just because we like to pretend that you can only show skin if you're a Victoria's Secret model. If you have big thighs and a round belly and small boobs and you wanna wear a bikini, do it! If you are tall and thin and wanna wear a one-piece, omg do it!! Do whatever you want! (As long as you wear sunscreen. My aggressive tan lines are begging you.)