Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Body Image, Beachwear, and the Jersey Shore

We, the people, are bikini-ready.

Please believe me when I say that I mean the following without an ounce of snark: After a weekend at the Jersey Shore, I have to wonder if we've overstated the body-image crisis of American women.

For all the “bikini body” chatter thrown at women and the resulting anxiety that (justifiably) gets plenty of ink in the blogosphere, the scene at the Jersey Shore was a sort of naturalistic sphere in which “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” applied to everyone, regardless of their place on the spectrum of conventional beauty. Portly women in bikinis, teenagers with poochy bellies poking out over their bikini bottoms, fat men in Speedos (including one who had the letter “R” shaved into his back hair), discolored stretch marks snaking up people’s thighs, lesser-endowed and more-endowed women wearing the same classic triangle tops (both of which are probably a classic “Don’t” in ladymag parlance). I feel sort of weird putting traditionally negative descriptions of people’s bodies on this blog, but in a way, that’s just the point: These characteristics that we usually see as something to be erased or banished or at the very least covered up were on full display, and the atmosphere of the beach was such that nobody gave a hoot.

Because of the sort of things I write about, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about body image. And “Hey, the ladies are feeling just fine” isn’t usually the takeaway of what I’m reading. Positive body image is either presented as a tale of triumph, or as an anomaly—and while 40% of women being unhappy with their bodies is discouraging, that means 60% of us are doing okay. I’m deeply grateful for the body-positive work that’s being done (Beauty Redefined comes to mind, but certainly everyone on my blogroll here is body-positive)—and the numbers of women who are dissatisfied with their bodies could be far lower and still warrant grave concern. But the net effect of the focus on negative body image is that I wind up missing tales of people who have average-to-positive body image, and who always have.

It’s not like I actually have any idea what was going on inside my fellow beachgoers’ minds; I don’t want to mistake wearing a bikini while fat (or cellulited, or otherwise in possession of an attribute that would be quietly airbrushed out of a fashion shoot) for having a positive body image. Certainly it’s not like our body image really even has much to do with our actual bodies in the first place. But I’d like to think that the unconcerned air at the shore signals a note of optimism—or, hell, apathy, which might still be an improvement—on body image.

I’d also like to think that while the relaxed vibe of beaches in general have the potential to counteract “bikini body” messages, that there’s something about these beaches in particular that make the case more definitively. There’s an unflagging element of democracy to the Jersey Shore, swaths of which have long been working-class resorts for Philadelphia-area families. While some communities of the Jersey Shore are more moneyed than others, nowhere do you find the exclusivity of, say, the Hamptons, the famed getaway of well-off New Yorkers. The affordability of the area’s attractions—25-cent skee-ball and a visit to Shriver's salt water taffy—means that there’s little interest in making sure that certain special people get to enjoy themselves while preserving barriers to entry for the less special people.

I don’t want to romanticize any socioeconomic class, and to do so would be erroneous anyway. (I’m thinking here of the number of non-white women—and men of all colors—whose eating disorders go undiagnosed because they’re considered white-girl problems.) But while taking in the scene at the Jersey Shore, where people were quite literally letting it all hang out, I did wonder if the democracy of the area as a vacation spot extended to body image as well. Does the idea that everyone has an inviolable right to a little R&R mean that vacationers in populist resorts more intuitively understand that we all have an inviolable right to a beer belly too? 

J.Woww and her juicehead gorillas: emblems of beauty democracy. (Work with me here, people.)

I also couldn’t help but reconsider the somewhat unfortunate totem of the area, the MTV’s Jersey Shore. I’ve only seen the pilot episode, which I found wildly hilarious for five minutes and incredibly disheartening thereafter. Part of my wincing came from the intense energy nearly all cast members devoted to their appearance—from Pauly D’s hair gel haul to J.Woww’s breast implants to the carefully bronzed skin of the entire crew, the artifice that went into their looks was staggering. And, for the record, I’m never going to endorse altering one’s appearance to fit into a preconceived notion of beauty.

But somewhere between hair gel and tanning beds lies an aesthetic that is, perhaps by design, more accessible to the masses than "natural beauty"—if by “natural beauty” one also happens to mean conventional beauty, which, depending on the speaker, is often the case. The Jersey Shore aesthetic takes the idea of “beautiful people”—which, as a term, is a socioeconomic descriptor, not merely a descriptor of people with classic good looks—and makes it something we can all have for $7.99. Much of the criticism of the beauty industry revolves around the ways in which it packages a possibly inherent human desire—to be beautiful—and uses it to prod us into buying products. It’s a valid criticism, of course, but I don’t want to ignore that sometimes these products just serve the purpose of allowing you to possess one aspect of elusive beauty. You can always get a spray tan, or a particular hairstyle, or darken your eyelashes; you can’t purchase your way into high cheekbones or symmetrical features unless you’re a member of a privileged class or are willing to financially prioritize those goods.

The aesthetic of Jersey Shore in some ways functions as a democratization of beauty, instead of making it a quality that only the divine, chosen few are able to easily access, or something that more holistically minded folk seek within. I’m not trying to pooh-pooh “beauty from within” or “every woman is beautiful”; certainly those lines of thought are closer to my home base than beauty in a can. But after a weekend slapping around the Jersey Shore wearing my oversized sunglasses and strapless tankini, I felt none of the anxieties of “looking the part,” unlike my experience in more moneyed spots. There may be a coveted aesthetic at the Jersey Shore—one that I do not fit, incidentally—but the idea behind it is that it just might be attainable for everyone. One step left of that, then, is that whatever you bring to the table might not be judged as harshly as trying to fit into an elite aesthetic and failing. A failure to meet a highly artificial aesthetic will largely be perceived as a lack of effort; failure to meet a “beautiful people” standard becomes a combination of not enough resources and not enough genetic luck. There are pitfalls to both, to be sure, and in a bootstrap society like America perhaps the former will forever be judged the greater sin. But there's something fundamentally unjust about the latter, and while beauty and justice are separate beasts, I'd like to see their values comfortably coexist.


  1. "I don’t want to ignore that sometimes these products just serve the purpose of allowing you to possess one aspect of elusive beauty."

    Yes! Sometimes people make it sound as it everyone were happy with their looks before advertising became so prevalent--- as if women weren't judged for their looks back then, or they didn't mind being written off for their imperfections?

    An old quote from my own blog:

    'I’m reminded of chapter 10 in Louisa May Alcott’s 'An Old Fashioned Girl', in which Tom is disgusted to learn that his fiance “paints” — golly, what do you bet he’ll fall for the demure, self-effacing Old Fashioned Girl instead? How lucky that she’s “fresh-faced” and “pretty” with “pretty brown curls!”After all, if she weren’t attractive, would Tom even care about her old-fashioned virtues?'

  2. You raise several interesting ideas. Surveying similar scenes on NY beaches (but not in The Hamptons), I've pondered similar thoughts. Sometimes, people turn off the part of their brain dealing with critical social judgment and just want to relax and have fun. Beaches can promote that, especially if others are exhibiting equal unconcern for their appearance.

    Perhaps malls are the scary places...

  3. I'd like to say the battle for body positivity is fought in the dressing room--and won on the beach. :)

  4. After my 9 year old was born, I thought I'd never feel comfortable enough with my body to wear a bikini again. After a trip to the beach in Florida, where I saw all sizes of women wearing bikinis, I realized that I was much more preoccupied with myself than anyone else would be and decided to wear two-pieces without regret.

    I've noticed on visits in the past 9 year to east coast beaches from New York to Florida that women of all ages and body types tend to wear bikinis and don't seem to worry too much about how others perceive them. I like it because it tends to give me a healthy comparative perspective on my own body.

  5. Rebekah, nice reference--classic literature is filled with hand-wringing about appearance. Hell, we bemoan Photoshop, as though the professional portrait-makers of that era weren't "airbrushing" the hell out of their subjects!

    Shybiker, NY beaches are particularly interesting in this regard, both because of the cultural mix and the sort of workaholic mind-set that's so prevalent here. (And YES malls are the scary places...)

    Eden, love it! A nice subversion of the idea that looking good is the reward (which it can be, to be sure); really it's body positivity that's the reward here.

    Kristen, it can't be said enough that nobody else cares nearly as much about our bodies as we ourselves do. Nobody else would EVER give my body the kind of scrutiny I give it, so it's not even a matter of "well, screw 'em if they don't like it"; it's a matter of "they don't give a damn"!

  6. I found this piece particularly interesting and have a lot of things to say about it... I don't really agree with the Jersey Shore thing being a cause of the "bikini-readiness" of the general public, but that's an interesting point. Similar to what Kristen said, sort of, at the various high school pool parties I've attended, there were only one to two girls NOT wearing a bikini, and that made them/their bodies stand out so much more than they would have in a bikini, even though maybe their bodies were not traditionally bikini-ready in that whole media way. I'm just noticing this myself; maybe I'll write something on it at some point too. Great post!!

  7. Hey Alexa--Thanks! That is so interesting that bikinis are de rigueur at pool parties, despite not being on traditionally bikini-ready bodies. I know that simply wearing a bikini doesn't mean that you're proud of your body (I used to have a bikini and felt super self-conscious the whole time I'd wear it), but I also didn't have a traditionally bikini-ready body at the time and wore it anyway. There IS a certain amount of confidence that one has to possess to wear one; it's not like there aren't plenty of other options. Interesting. Would love to read your post on it!

  8. What an interesting post! (And thanks for the Beauty Redefined shout-out :) Totally with you here. When I was in Barcelona, I went to a topless beach where woman of all shapes and sizes strolled around in absolute freedom from the "to be looked at" chains that hold so many of us bound. There, breasts aren't just for sex appeal. I kept tankini on...I'm just not comfortable enough with the idea to bare it all quite yet! But I LOVED seeing reality so much. I even thought I'd want my boyfriend to be there with me, to see all this reality instead of the airbrushed, enhanced boobs he has to see a billion times over in media. There is something about vacations that allow us to shake off the "to be looked at" mentality and realize we're a LOT happier when we're living and playing and not just picturing ourselves being looked at. I see that happening on the Jersey Shore!

    The whole bikini thing brings up all these other interesting points - so many people wear them as if there is no other option. Women of diverse looks so often choose bikinis w/o questioning it, while men get to wear long, often baggy board shorts. I really like that one-pieces, tankinis, tube tops, board shorts, etc. are in style for the ladies these days because I really appreciate more options than the tiny fabric of a bikini for my swimming pursuits. In places like the Jersey Shore, I can never decide if women prefer to wear tiny bikinis, or don't critically consider any other options? If they choose it because they like it, more power to them!! If they don't realize they can wear any number of other types of suits, that's another thing. Plus, bikinis were invented by men and until men are highly pressured to get their bods "speedo-ready" across all media, I think I'm OK not wearing one either. ha ha! Thanks for a great post...sorry about my rambling! I love your work - every last post!

  9. Lindsay/Lexie (criminy, I remember talking with one of you about Barcelona but can't remember which one of you it was now!), that's so interesting about how being on a topless beach eradicated the "to be looked at" chains. I'd say it has something to do with the fact that nudity stripped of its forbidden nature seems ho-hum...but just walking down the street fully clothed, which we all do, certainly doesn't help us shed those chains. Maybe it's just stripping a supposedly erotic body part of its erotic meaning? In any case, interesting!

    I have never understood why tankinis aren't more popular. They're the best of both worlds! You can go to the bathroom easily and you don't have to bare all. Tankinis forever!