By Lindsay Kite, PhD
How did wearing a bikini become the gold standard for demonstrating body positivity? Yes, every body is a bikini body if that’s what you really want to wear, but why are two-piece swimsuits (and posting pictures of ourselves in them online) now the ultimate signifier of female confidence? Why have so many of us bought into the idea that wearing a bikini equals loving your body and loving your body equals wearing a bikini?
We would argue it’s the same reason so many of us struggle with low self-esteem and negative body image in the first place: we are defined by our bodies. To be more specific, we are defined by the looks of our bodies. For too many women, our looks are everything: our greatest source of shame or pride, our lifelong fixer-upper project, and the only thing about us that matters in lots of circles and situations. This is objectification. We learn from childhood that women are objects for other people’s visual or physical enjoyment and we learn to judge ourselves through that same external view. We become outsiders looking in at our own bodies.
When we are defined by the way we look and when the standards of good looks are perpetually out of reach, of course we are ashamed of our bodies. Of course we learn to seek confidence and power and validation through “fixing” or sharing our bodies. Our objectifying culture (and economy) depends on that! Of course we learn to define and think of our complex, incredible bodies almost exclusively in terms of how they LOOK, and we believe the falsehood that loving our looks is the same thing as loving ourSELVES.
We might even believe wearing a bikini in public is the ultimate test of true body confidence and empowerment. Later, we might even learn to reject those “bikini body” ideals and come to believe that our vulnerability at exposing our skin for the world in a bikini, even (and maybe especially) with all its “flaws” is proof of total self-love and body confidence. The internet will back you up on that idea, too. Compare the likes on any woman’s swimsuit pic to the likes on basically any other pic she has posted. Body-baring pics win every time.
When our looks are the MOST important thing about us and when body confidence gets minimized to simply embracing the LOOKS of our bodies, it makes sense that bikinis — the most revealing of all publicly acceptable attire — take on other-worldly power in our lives. We’re calling this #bikinityranny. Why tyranny? Because no item of clothing can or should have that kind of power over us — for good or evil. For so many years, bikinis have been put on a pedestal reserved only for the “hottest” among us. In recent years, with much-needed body positive activism, women have worked to shatter that pedestal holding all the bikini body ideals to help people of all sizes feel comfortable enough to wear one.
But do bikinis really deserve to hold that power? Do they really hold the keys to our body image liberation?
Sure, wearing a bikini might make going to the bathroom easier during a day at the pool. It might prevent the painful groin and shoulder strangulation of a one-piece that is too short in the torso. It might allow for a much nicer tan. It might look awesome.
But … it might also spark constant monitoring and tugging and adjustment if you’re moving around much, let alone trying to play or swim. It might expose too much sensitive skin to the sun (hi melanoma) and sand and saltwater and hot chairs. It might be impractical and uncomfortable and trigger you to constantly think about your appearance. That last piece is extremely likely, whether you love the way you look in a bikini or hate it or somewhere in between. The mental state of thinking about how you look while you go about your life is called self-objectification and it is the absolute worst. It creates constant body anxiety and steals away our mental focus and physical capacity. Body-baring clothing is known to spark self-objectification, even if no one is looking at you.
Please keep in mind that some of the people posting their bikini shots on IG are still suffering from negative body image and constant fixation on their appearance. Some are so fixated on getting great photos that they don’t actually make it to the pool, or spend the entire time pulling and tugging and adjusting out of discomfort or trying to present their bikini bodies in the most photo-worthy and appealing manner as possible.
You might wear a bikini because you love the way it looks or feels. You might even wear it to push back against beliefs about your body being sinful or being someone else’s property. Awesome. We love seeing body diversity in media and at the pool or beach. Representation matters and everyone deserves to swim.
But please be cautious of the pressure to wear a bikini simply in order to prove to the internet and to yourself that you love your body and are a confident woman. No one asks men to prove their confidence by posting Speedo pics on IG. We hope that continues. However, an objectifying culture that only values women for our bodies THRIVES off you believing that revealing more of your body online is the truest path to liberation and empowerment, and that bikini pics are the best way to demonstrate self-love and confidence. In this female body-obsessed world, isn’t it interesting that wearing a bikini is both the problem and the supposed solution to our body image woes?
We’d like to offer an alternative view.
Positive body image isn’t believing your body looks good; it’s knowing your body is good, regardless of how it looks.
Wearing a bikini and posting the proof online doesn’t give you body confidence and it doesn’t prove your body confidence. No amount of likes or follows or external validation can do that. Why? Because your body doesn’t exist to be looked at. We have got to stop privileging an external perspective on the incredible bodies we’ve had since the moment we were born. You have grown up in this body and experienced every second of your life in this body, and yet we judge and define our wonderful bodies by how we feel about how they look in a swimsuit? That thought should be laughable.
Wearing a bikini does not mean you love your body any more than wearing a hat means you hate your head. Lots of gals in bikinis hate their bodies and lots of gals in rash guards and board shorts love their bodies. Let swimsuits be swimsuits! Not badges of honor or tests of courage or proof of pride! Just swimsuits. Can we take back some of that power now? Can we end the bikini’s reign of terror or triumph? We’re over the bikini tyranny that dominates discussions of body ideals and body positivity. Your swimsuit proves nothing about your body image and IT SHOULDN’T HAVE TO. It’s just a swimsuit.
So, if wearing a bikini proudly isn’t the solution to body image issues, what WILL get you closer to experiencing and demonstrating real, lasting body confidence? One hugely important step is understanding that your body is an instrument for your use and experience, not an ornament to be admired. Even though I grew up as a competitive swimmer, I refused to swim from ages 15-21 because I hated the way I looked. It was only once I recognized the body shame that had been drowning me for years and chose to swim against it — literally — that I was able to develop body image resilience and use my body as an instrument to change my whole life. (Full story in my TEDx talk here.) Putting on a swimsuit even though I was ashamed did not help me love my body. Putting on a swimsuit even though I was ashamed and SWIMMING helped me love my body.
We can’t give swimsuits the power to make or break our body image. However, your choice of clothing and swimwear can help increase your body confidence when it allows you to feel comfortable and confident DOING and LIVING and BEING. Wear whatever you believe will enable you to experience and appreciate your surroundings, your situation, your capabilities, and what it’s like to live inside a body that is good for a lot more than being looked at. Until we shift that focus, we’ll be stuck in the same cycle of self-objectification that keeps us focused on how we look in a swimsuit instead of who we are and what we can do.
You are more than a bikini body. When we see more in ourselves and everyone else, we can be more.
Illustrations by Michelle Christensen, commissioned for Beauty Redefined.
Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and build the resilience to take on what holds you back from positive body image with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Resilience Course for girls and women 14+. It is an online, video-based (plus full text and audio) therapeutic tool that can change your life, developed and tested by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, PhD.