s the hottest days of summer approach, you can be sure there will be a slew of #sunsoutbunsout pics ready for the posting all across the WiFi-accessible world. Mine included. I give all credit for this photo-preparedness to my friends-turned-photographers, a nostalgic set of VSCO filters and the wave of body positivity that has been kicked into gear each summer since blogger, designer and all-around babe Gabi Gregg birthed the term “Fatkini” six years ago.
Since then, Google Trends shows that searches for terms like “body positivity” and “plus size bikini” have steadily increased — a seeming win for girls like me who hid under oversized T-shirts at middle school pool parties — but so have search terms like “summer body” and “bikini body,” and these by more than twice as much. When we know that more than half of American women are over a size 14, those numbers hint at a major flaw in the body-pos movement, or rather, at the enduring strength of traditional body standards.
For all the social media hashtags and personalities fighting to change mainstream thought about the way women should feel about their bodies, the old ideas of what a woman should look like are still deeply rooted in our culture, and I know many women, including myself, who find themselves trapped between these two messages. We are told by our friends and heroes and a smattering of progressive (or, let’s be real — in some cases, opportunistic) brands that we should be proud of whatever bodies we’re working with, all while being shown by a large portion of media that certain body types will always be preferred, praised and rewarded and that being confident while fat is “brave.”
This is especially disorienting for someone like me. At a size 14, I’ve always sat on the outskirts of what society might deem “acceptably fat.” As in: You’re not that fat, but you would look better if you lost some weight. A few summers ago, I was in a video called “How To Get a Bikini Body — For Feminists!” for Bustle. A month later, a YouTube channel that describes itself as “unapologetically conservative” responded with a debunking video in which, when referring to my body, the debunker says plainly, “you could do with a little bit of help.” It’s worth noting that the video has more than quadruple the views of the original video, indicative of the “one step forward, two steps back” nature of society’s relationship with allowing women to love and accept themselves for even a goddamn second.
Though his statement toward me was quick and he’s probably long forgotten making it, it fueled some of my worst thoughts about my body. Because truth be told, I’ve heard some version of it my whole life. I’ve always felt a few notches below what society deems preferable — far enough to not reap the benefits of fitting the mold, but close enough to be taunted by the promise of it all. Over the years, I’ve internalized this idea in the form of half-attempted exercise and diet regimens that only accelerated when summer arrived. Every February, I would launch into a workout plan designed to help me get rid of those few 15-20 pounds, but to my frustration, it’d never work. I still had my soft, rounded stomach, arms that were far from toned and thighs that resembled the Jell-O that sits ignored at summer cookouts. I was so frustratingly close to what could make me acceptable by society’s standards, and yet, every summer, I would fail. It was a maddening double defeat.
And so when I couldn’t manipulate my body, I resorted to manipulating how people saw it. During winter, I would hide under cozy knit sweaters. To survive summers, I would be more strategic: full-coverage boy short bottoms to hide cellulite, padded triangle bras to create the cleavage I did not have and — miracle of all miracles — retro high-waisted bikinis that could somewhat hide the fact that my sit-ups and crunches did not grant me six-pack abs. This strategic styling seemed like the only option for someone like me. If I couldn’t be preferred, I’d settle for accepted.
Year after year, I believed this was the best I could do, even though when I looked in the mirror, I never actually felt like the best of anything. Eventually, I saw that I’d become both the warden of and prisoner to a physical ideal that I had no say in making. By internalizing the message that all I’d ever be was “good enough,” I made it so. In my attempt to achieve a tolerable fatness, all I’d managed to accomplish was to uphold the old exclusionary standards of beauty that kept me feeling like a second-string woman in the first place.
Realizing that I was always going to be runner-up if I played along by society’s rules was all I needed to excuse myself from the game. Yes, I could wear a swimsuit that would strategically cover my rolls, hiding a sign of my fatness, but then that would mean I believed my body was something that needing hiding — and after a lot of soul-searching, I knew I didn’t. So this year, my summer #sunsoutbunsout pics will be just that: a whole lotta buns being out. Maybe a few rolls, while I’m at it. There will be nary a single push-up swimsuit top in sight, and I’m returning “flattering” retro swimsuits from whence they came. This year, I’m giving myself room to discover what perfect looks like by my standards, and right now, it looks a lot like summer tan lines in places that don’t usually see the sun.
Feature photo by Savanna Ruedy.