With summer around the corner, it’s likely we’re going to start seeing that age-old phrase pop up everywhere from Instagram captions to television commercials: summer body. Sometimes it masquerades as a different set of words — Bikini body! Bathing suit body! — but the bottom line is still the same: The phrase carries a covert message that there’s only one type of body suitable for shorts or swimwear.
Despite how far we’ve come in our societal understanding of body acceptance and body positivity, there is still a deeply rooted notion that people have to change their bodies in order to be “ready” for summer.
It’s important to know that all of that is B.S. — and incredibly dangerous. Society’s long-standing obsession with thinness has played a large role in the millions of people who struggle with an eating disorder in the United States. Nearly 7 in 10 women and girls have experienced a decline in body confidence and increase in appearance-related anxiety as a result of unrealistic beauty standards portrayed in the media, according to a study cited by the National Eating Disorders Association.
What’s more, the idea that summer clothing and swimwear are meant for only one body type is rooted in fatphobia and erases a huge portion of the population. The “average” American woman wears between a size 16 and 18, and insinuating that an entire subset of clothing isn’t meant for them — and those who wear sizes larger than that — is both ridiculous and harmful.
“Advertisers don’t always realize the impact that terms like ‘summer body’ have on people who live in bodies that don’t fit the ‘societal norm,’” said Gianluca Russo, a fashion and culture writer and co-founder of The Power of Plus, a size-inclusive digital community. “For some people, using these phrases means nothing. But for other people, these words hold a lot of trauma because these terms are essentially telling you that when summer comes around, you need to look a certain way in order to wear these garments.”
For people with eating disorders and body dysmorphia, these terms can also be triggering — and can encourage harmful behaviors and old habits. Elisha Contner Wilkins, the executive director at Veritas Collaborative, a national eating disorder recovery center, expressed concern that these messages might hit harder during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“These messages can contradict the recovery work on which one is focused,” Wilkins said. “This could trigger one to return to old patterns of behavior or maladaptive ways of coping. It can be easy to fall back into old patterns especially during times of uncertainty, anxiety or isolation, especially when the more adaptive behaviors one has learned in treatment have not had enough time to be positively reinforced.”
The responsibility is on the media and advertisers to stop using these phrases, but the reality is that society just isn’t there yet. So if summer brings up anxiety or triggering feelings, there are fortunately ways to cope while also challenging beauty standards and pushing for a more inclusive future. Here’s how:
Cleanse your social media feed.
Instagram can be a powerful tool for body positivity and acceptance, from accounts with resources and affirmations to influencers and brands that promote inclusivity.
Stock up your follow list with accounts that make you feel empowered and accepted, along with the celebrities who inspire you to live authentically and unapologetically. And if there’s an account that’s making you feel bad about yourself? Hit that unfollow button and don’t look back.
Russo, who writes a monthly column for Nylon called “Plus Us,” pointed out that influencers play a huge role in this conversation, and that many straight-sized social media stars might not realize the damage they are inflicting when they post about “getting their bodies ready” for summertime.
“If you see an influencer in whom you’ve developed some kind of trust posting about preparing their body for summer, you might think, ’Well ... what do I need to be doing?’” he told HuffPost, adding that he wishes more thin influencers would contemplate the impact of their words. “It’s time we see people with bigger platforms speak up about this even if it doesn’t directly impact them, because I’m sure an overwhelming amount of their followers are impacted.”
Move your body in a joyful way.
The entire notion of a “summer body” suggests that people need to change their bodies in order to be ready for the summer, which can be triggering for anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder or compulsive exercise.
There is a strong link between exercise compulsion and eating disorders — a connection that begins at a young age, according to NEDA. One study showed that around 68% of teenage girls and 51% of teenage boys exercise with the goal of losing weight or to avoid gaining weight.
Divorcing the connection between exercise and weight loss takes work, and Wilkins pointed out that these summer phrases aren’t helping anyone.
“These words send mixed messages, especially about exercise, food, and summer in general,” she said, adding that we should replace these messages with more rational and positive ones instead. “This idea that one needs to change the way that they move or eat in preparation for summer is just unrealistic. It is important to find a way to move our bodies that brings us joy and to which we look forward.”
With that, ask yourself what you enjoy doing. What activities bring you happiness?
“It’s important to question this because we spend so much time absorbing information about how our bodies are ‘supposed’ to look or what we’re ‘supposed’ to eat, and we lose touch with what we actually want and what we desire,” Milwaukee-based personal trainer Chrissy King previously told HuffPost.
“This idea that one needs to change the way that they move or eat in preparation for summer is just unrealistic.”
Use your voice.
At the end of the day, media and advertisers are trying to sell a product. To us. The more we collectively reject their messaging, the more powerful our voices can be.
“We know that advertising is a powerful mechanism,” Wilkins said. “I would like to see media and ads continue to focus on bodies of all shapes and sizes, as this much better represents the society and world in which we live.”
Another solution is to push for size inclusivity within brands themselves.
“Ultimately, what the plus-size community wants is just the same thing as the straight-size community has: We want equal — not different, not more, not less,” Russo said, noting that many brands that include plus sizes often do so by offering more “conservative” clothing, especially when it comes to swimwear and summer fashion.
“Of course, there are people who will always want to dress conservatively regardless of size, but there’s a growing number of people in larger bodies who don’t want that. They want to have fun with fashion,” he continued. “Brands should really rework their narratives to offer everyone the same thing.”
Wilkins also pointed out that parents of small children should be mindful of how messaging around summer bodies might be reaching them, even at a young age.
“This is a great opportunity for those of us who are parents to point out to our children ways that a particular commercial, for instance, might be contributing to a negative sense of self or is not representative of ‘real life,’” Wilkins said.
Focus on having the best summer — for you.
With the lost summer of 2020 behind us, this year is all about making new memories. After all, that’s what summer should always be about: having fun, laughing with friends and family, enjoying the sunshine and living in the moment — all of which can be done at any body size or shape.
Russo agreed, saying he hopes brands will refocus their messaging on the core appeal of summer.
“Essentially, what is the message behind the term ‘bikini body’? It’s about wanting people to feel their best in order to have the best summer experience — especially after the year we all just had,” he said. “Anybody can have that. Remove the triggering language, and the core messaging is still the same.”