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Always Beach Body Ready

Hannah Carley examines the potential damage of summer beauty standards and the ways we can break from their hold

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Image Credit: Pumin pk

Summer is officially just around the corner, bringing beach days, barbeques and afternoon drinks outside Courtyard back into our lives. It also means the arguably not so welcome return of the romanticisation of the ideal ‘summer body’, bringing undue pressure to show off the perfect tan and figure come July.

As the temperatures rise the desire for the perfect ‘summer body’ permeates across much of our media. In weight loss ads, influencer captions, fashion, and fitness magazines. These dieting and weight loss plans - even if well-meaning - perpetuate a narrative that if you plan on showing any skin during the season, you need to get in shape well in advance.

Our summer media consumption takes this further, with shows such as Love Island and Too Hot to Handle shipping their own definition of attractive and eligible singles off to sunnier climes. Their stars often all look alike, with minimal diversity in body shape. Women need to be slim and curvaceous. Men need to be muscular. It’s by no means body-positive. Such media also fails to consider the hetero-normative ideals and gender biases these portrayals promote.  Though we are beginning to see improvement in this area with shows such as Are You The One? highlighting queer romances and gender non-conformity, traditional understandings of attractiveness as tall, tan and lean remain.

Overall, this sets an unrealistic and narrow standard for the rest of the population who cannot be blamed for comparing themselves to the people they see in bikinis and swimming trucks on their screens each evening.  When we begin to think this way, it is easy to see how our view of summer beauty can be so easily misconstrued.

Combine this with the social media pressure that already converges around beauty and you are left with an intoxicating cocktail. A survey last year found that only 29 percent of people in the UK would post a selfie without editing it. We are constantly told that we need to look a certain way to be attractive, to be worthy, to be successful. Our obsession with needing to look particularly perfect when the sun shines certainly does this no favours.

Such a narrative stigmatises those that don’t fit within its boundaries, and further exacerbates self-esteem and body image issues that are already prevalent within society, particularly amongst young people like ourselves. It’s difficult to remain confident when the world around you keeps saying that you don't look good enough to wear shorts or a swimming costume.

It can also have dangerous consequences. The diet culture perpetuated by these ideals can often encourage dangerous weight loss practices, rather than long term focused plans to manage health and fitness. Associating health with the size of your waist or the numbers on a scale rather than both physical and mental wellness and self-care can easily do more harm than good. The Covid - 19 pandemic led to an increase in the number of people diagnosed with eating disorders in the UK. The annual pressure to look good, rather than feel good, in the sun can only add to this strain, with the weight loss culture it perpetuates promoting extreme exercise and diet plans.

You don’t need to look far on Youtube to find videos about how to get ‘beach body ready’ in often dangerously short time frames. Thanks to algorithms one or two of these clips can lead to being constantly recommended for such content, creating a cycle that for many could be difficult to break. It’s not what summer should be about.

Luckily though, such attitudes are starting to change. For instance, the term ‘Hot Girl Summer’, coined by rapper Megan Thee Stallion, is becoming ever more popular across social media. Despite its name, the movement promotes women being able to be their best authentic selves free from shaming, challenging gender stereotypes and traditional beauty standards. It has become a staple of many Instagram bios and tweets over recent years, and has even featured in music by Megan alongside Nicki Minaj.

Great progress has also been made in some parts of the fashion industry, with greater summer clothing options for plus-sized women and more open and accepted use of plus-size models in campaigns and on the runway. This is particularly key in the swimsuit industry, where certain styles of swimwear - particularly bikinis - have often been falsely perceived as an option exclusive to those who are particularly slender.

Yet even such progress comes with a caveat. Terms like ‘Hot Girl Summer’, that come from a body-positive place can and are easily misconstrued. The summer of 2021 provides an excellent example. As we prepared for life to get back to normal, social media feeds flooded with people talking about a need to get ready for the ultimate Hot Girl Summer, and the ways that they wanted to lose weight gained throughout the numerous lockdowns previous. People discussed needing to lose certain amounts of weight before ‘freedom day’ and made fun of the way that they looked at the time. Even small pockets of growing positivity can be turned around into negative body imagery and stigmatisation.

Body positivity for those who are masculine or androgynous also lags far behind, with stereotypes about needing to be ripped and in shape for summer still being the norm, and plus-sized positivity often still being commonly associated with femininity. When it comes to society releasing that every body is a summer body, there is evidently a long way left to go.

So as we head into summer 2022, where does this leave us? Well, it’s pretty much certain that the pressure to have a great tan and flawless skin will still be here in July. But that doesn’t mean we have to let ourselves be defined by it. Positive actions - though not fixes - are leading to great progress in the ways we define our beauty and worth, and we should not let summer be the thing that gets us down. If you are unhappy with the way you look in the mirror, you don’t need a new reflection, but a new perspective.

Hopefully positive moves such as ‘Hot Girl Summer’, and the bravery of artists such as Lizzo to be photographed nude for Dove’s Self Esteem Project will help to continue to reshape our standards. But we can also do such things ourselves. The freedom day weight loss trend was called out by many on social media, who understood the damages such a rhetoric could have, even if some meant it as an innocent joke. The impacts such ideas can have on those with a history of disordered eating or outstanding self-esteem or body image issues is unfortunately not something to play around with. It is something we should all remember to stay clear of, and encourage others to do the same.

On more basic levels, just be happy for yourself and for others. Don’t tell me I should wear that swimsuit because it’s more flattering. Don’t be afraid to post that selfie just because the lighting at the beach isn’t working for you. Don’t feel like you have to meet anyone else's standards in order to be beach body ready. The truth is, we are always beach body ready, until it inevitably starts raining.

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