On Bodies and Beaches

Perhaps nowhere is social exclusion of ‘undesirable’ bodies more overt, and accepted, than at the beach. The media deluges us in messaging about how to prepare our bodies for the beach, with a reminder that they should be plucked and properly shaded and ‘toned,’ by which they mean thin, and every year, this messaging seems to grow more intense. People with bodies that don’t fit these requirements are reminded that they do not fit in, do not belong, and are not wanted.

It’s in the messaging about how ‘some clothes just don’t look right, you know?’ which I hear coming from almost everyone, including people who ¬†should know better. People who claim to support fat acceptance make snide, sneering statements about people who wear tight clothing or fashions they don’t like because they ‘look bad,’ by which the critic usually means that they don’t hide someone’s fat. These judgments are not about clothing and fashion, but the actual lived body, because it is not the clothing that is hideous, no matter how much people claim, but the body beneath it.

It’s in the clear reminders that fat people should wear coverups at the beach because ‘no one wants to see that.’ What, exactly? A person at the beach? Is this such an offensive sight? A fat person having fun and relaxing? Is this wrong? Ah, no, it’s the fat body that people don’t ‘want to see’ because it’s icky and gross. People have a social responsibility to protect the world from the sight of themselves, because otherwise they’re being mean.

It comes, too, in the inaccessibility of many beaches. Wheelchairs, scooters, canes, and walkers are generally not welcome. Inaccessibility in this case isn’t just about the usual thoughtless ableism; there’s also a sense of active discrimination to it. After all, why would disabled people need to go to the beach? What would they do there? Shouldn’t they be sitting at home, being disabled? Why would parents of a disabled child want to be able to take her to a friend’s beach birthday party? Isn’t she too fragile to be outside with the nondisabled children anyway? Beaches don’t need to be accessible, it’s not like anyone would use them.

The thing about bodies and beaches is that really, there are only two rules when it comes to having a beach body.

The first is that you need to have a body. It can be of any shape, size, age, or ability status. The details are not really important, but it does indeed need to be a body. It’s sort of bound up in the name, you know?

The second is that your body must enjoy going to the beach.

Now, this one is a bit more complicated. In a vacuum, you might like the idea of the beach, whether you want to swim or lie in the sun and read a book or hang out with friends or drink cocktails out of a flask that is fooling no one. This, the pure idea of going to the beach, is a fantastic one that you fully support.

But you might not want to go to the beach because of the attitudes you will encounter there. And these attitudes? Are not about whether you personally are ‘beach ready.’ They are about the fact that you live in a shitty society filled with judgmental assholes who apparently think they can decide whether you have a ‘beach body.’ And I wish I could make all those assholes go away so you could enjoy the beach in peace, I really, really do. I wish I could remove all the obstacles that make it hard for you to get to the beach and have a fun time while you’re there, whether you can’t even get ON to the beach because it’s not wheelchair-accessible or you don’t really feel like being snickered at by people when they walk past your towel and cough ‘whale’ into their fists.

But you know what? If you have a body and you want to take it to the beach, you have a beach body.

It’s up to society to make the beach a friendly place for you, so that you can actually enjoy your time there instead of fearing it or thinking you need to hide or bundling up in socially-approved gear to hide any whisper of fatness or disability so as not to offend delicate sensibilities. And all of us here are working on that, but I’m sad to say it seems to be taking a while, because these attitudes, about bodies, are so deeply entrenched, and as we know they don’t just show up at the beach.

That naked contempt reserved for bodies that aren’t ‘normal’ shows up in the workplace, the school, and everywhere else. And in addition to being hateful, it is also bullying. It is bullying and abusive and nasty, because what people are telling you when they say your body doesn’t belong is that you don’t belong and you should go somewhere far, far away so you won’t upset people.

And I say balls to that, because, you know what? You belong. Everyone with a body belongs, no matter what that body looks like and how it behaves. And don’t you ever forget that, not for a minute. Not when someone is giving you the eyebrow for wearing short-shorts, not when someone is sighing impatiently because your hands are shaking as you reach for your debit card to buy groceries, not when someone talks to your aide instead of you, not when someone heaves with obvious displeasure when you sit next to that person in an aircraft.

You belong here.