Now that it’s officially June, the onslaught of bikini-related advertising campaigns can commence in force, not like that stopped anyone earlier. Indeed, as far back as January I was encountering reminders about the looming summer months and the necessity to get ready for Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. No one wants to look at pudge around the barbecue, after all. If you’re not in ‘bikini body’ shape now, it’s really too late, so you’d better turn to coverups and control bottoms if you want to stand a fighting chance of not being mocked off the beach.
With the constant messages about weight loss and acceptable bodies permeating the media, it’s sometimes hard to single out one specific phenomenon or campaign for shame, but I feel like the ‘bikini body’ issue really clearly crystallises so many problems with the way bodies are discussed in media and pop culture. It’s such a blatant collection of signaling that it’s almost unbelievable.
These campaigns are, of course, aimed at women. The presumption is that all women plan to be in places where they will be wearing bikinis in the coming months of the Northern Hemisphere, and thus, they must be appropriately ‘prepared.’ This means that their bodies need to be socially acceptable. Most ads are pretty blunt about what acceptable means, you don’t need to read through the lines or anything like that. Acceptable means ‘fit and toned,’ which is a way of saying that your stomach should be flat and arm/leg flab should not bother reporting for duty. It means ‘pleasing to look at, because you are an object.’
The shaming surrounding these campaigns occurs on so many levels that it’s really rather breathtaking. You are a personal failure if your body isn’t ‘ready’ to be seen in public, and the assumption is that, of course, anyone who doesn’t meet acceptable standards must be filled with shame and misery. These ads remind women that everyone will be looking at them in public, that everyone expects them to have sexually appealing bodies, that everyone, including, of course, other women will be judging them. If you set a toe outside the house with a little muffintop after encountering this messaging, you’re going to be so self conscious that there’s no possible way you could enjoy the pool, the beach, the deck of your cruise ship, or anywhere else, even if you feel pretty content and confident in your body most of the time.
It’s not just about fat, although that’s a key part of these campaigns, featuring models distorted through photo manipulation to make the impossible seem required. Manipulation is so commonplace that I’m often surprised when I meet models in person and realise that their bodies don’t actually look like the ones I see in their print ads, that they share many characteristics with all of us, they have folds and angles and skin that rubs together even though you don’t see that in their pictures.
Hair is the other perennial theme of these campaigns, namely that you shouldn’t really have any, except on your head. Oh perils, women’s magazines warn, should you have stray hairs around your ‘bikini line.’ You might want to just consider depilating the works, because, you know, what happens when your swimsuit gets wet? What happens if your bush becomes visible, or, gosh, if a few poorly-trimmed hairs slip out? Everyone might find out you have pubic hair![1. It is assumed, of course, that all women have a mons pubis/labia setup. Women’s magazines remain strangely silent on topics like, say, tucking for summer.] Your armpits should be pristine blanks, and your legs definitely shouldn’t have hair. Arm hair, ok, as long as it’s not, you know. Excessive. Moustaches should definitely be waxed to smoothness and eyebrows plucked. You are permitted long, flowing locks or short, sassy ‘dos attached to your scalp.
Getting rid of hair, keeping hair away, hiding hair, it seems to be an obsession. I’m not, naturally, a very hairy person; I have fairly fine hair that’s not very visible, and thus I’ve always been kind of bemused on a personal level by depilation campaigns, but for women with darker hair, it can be a significant source of angst. Thick, dark hair is more common in people of some races than others, and can also be associated with various medical conditions and medications. Have polycystic ovary disease? You’re definitely not beach ready until you’ve removed all that ucky hair.
And, of course, the delicate dance of skin tones in a world where everyone of worth is assumed to be white. Being pasty white is not acceptable for bikini body weather. You might accidentally scare the jellyfish. You should have a nice, well-developed, ‘natural’ tan that you will apparently acquire in the dead of winter by magical means, because that scaremongering article on page 134 warns you that tanning booths are very, very bad for you. But no fake tans! Ok, light bronzing lotion perhaps, but certainly no orange spray tan. Who cares if ultraviolet exposure is a great way to set yourself up for skin cancer later, you need to be beach ready.
Sufficiently plucked, toasted, and trimmed, you can dare to set foot on beaches with the rest of the populace, but, remember, you’re on notice; it’s not enough to look acceptable at the start of the season, you need to stay that way all summer long, folks. So be sure to pass up sweets during all those summer events you’re going to. Stay away from the cupcakes on the Fourth of July, my friends, lest they go to your thighs! The onslaught of messaging never ends; it’s no wonder I see people undergoing paroxysms of guilt when they decide to take an extra fruit cup at the fire station barbecue.