Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Beach Body Bingo (and Me on the Today Show)

Why would I feel beach body anxiety? Hell, Annette Funicello looks thrilled to be at the beach, and she's not even wearing a skydiving harness!

First off, a bit of news: I’m going to be on the Today show tomorrow morning  sometime in the next week [breaking news], talking mirror fasting. I’m pleased that this is beginning to be talked about as something more than just a blogger or two—word up, Kjerstin!—taking some time away from the mirror, and while I’m skeptical that there are enough mirror fasters out there to truly qualify as a “trend,” the idea that this is a part of a zeitgeist of women questioning their relationship to the mirror is exciting.

I was planning on doing the mirror fast again anyway, making it a sort of annual ritual for myself, when the Today show reached out to me after having read about my first go-round. In talking together, we decided it would be fun for me to keep a video diary of this year’s mirror fast, giving periodic updates about my progress and occasionally filming myself doing things that one would normally need a mirror to do. In brainstorming ideas we came up with a handful of ideas—going to the gym, shopping for clothes, getting my hair done, and so on.

When a friend suggested going to the beach, everyone else present nodded vigorously, but at first I wasn’t quite sure what that might have to do with going mirror-free. It’s not like there are mirrors at the beach, right? “It’s the whole ‘bikini season’ thing,” she said. Now, here’s the thing: I have my share of body anxieties, believe you me—but by whatever grace of the fates, “beach body” anxiety isn’t one of them. See, I love the beach. I. Love. The. Beach. Ilovethebeach. I saw a documentary about people with “object sexuality,” which amounts to a romantic desire toward inanimate objects (one woman fell out of love with her archery bow and fell in love with the Eiffel Tower), and—I mean, I’m not actually in love with the beach, but if the beach showed up at my place in a trenchcoat with a boombox, I’d be charmed, okay? And once I’m at the beach, my ability to get worked up about the circumference of my thighs becomes pretty much nil. I’m in the water half the time anyway—my great-grandmother was a mermaid—and the rest of the time I’m too busy sunning, dozing, fanning, or generally lazing about to care.

Sure, I might take care to suck in my belly when I emerge from the surf; yes, I usually give myself a quick once-over in my tankini before heading out the door. But I’m of the belief that American beaches—at least, my favorite beach in the five boroughs, Jacob Riis Park, named for a muckraker who documented the plight of poor, often new, Americans, who came here for a better life—are a sort of haven of democracy that extends to our bodies. There are plenty of beaches in the world (and in this country) where body consciousness rules, but New York City public beaches are not among them. I’m not saying that “beach body” anxiety isn’t a legitimate anxiety to have, just that it isn’t mine. Certainly, judging by the way others started nodding when the idea of going to the beach without having looked in a mirror recently, it’s an anxiety plenty of others share. So, sure, yeah, I’ll go to the beach and film it for my video diary. Maybe I’ll learn something, right?

Still, a couple of weeks after this conversation, it occurred to me: By including my beach trip in my video diary of my month without mirrors, which was going to be broadcast on national television, i.e. roughly four million people, I was also agreeing to appear in my swimsuit—on national television, in front of roughly four million people.

At this point, I feel like I should describe something about this realization felt: like a ton of bricks, perhaps? a punch in the gut? what other clichés can I come up with about how a 36-year-old woman with ample thighs, a round little beer belly, and a lifetime of Growing Up Woman would react upon realizing what she’d signed up for? This was the “swimsuit readiness” test of all time, right? This was my bikini body—okay, my tankini body, whatever—on display not for my fellow beachgoers (who would be, after all, in their own trunks and tankinis and Speedos and triangle tops and having far too good a time at the beach to be thinking about moi) but for people in their living rooms who may or may not have had their coffee yet and who may or may not be sitting there, arms crossed, grumbling Who is this woman, and why does she think we want to see her in her swimsuit? I should be freaking out, right?

Here’s the thing, though: I didn’t actually feel that way.
I report this not in a moment of triumph of overcoming all my self-consciousness, but rather in the way some people report reacting to the death of a loved one: feeling sort of weird about not feeling worse than they actually do. I knew of the feeling that might be expected of a woman nearing 40 with a probably-average set of body woes who just realized four million people may see her in her swimsuit—panic, anxiety, worry, fear. But when I compared it with my actual reaction, which was more in the realm of Oh, whatever, the gap between the two made me wonder why I wasn’t more anxious about it. Let me repeat that, for absurdity’s sake: My reaction to realizing that I’d signed up for four million people to see my bare thighs was nonchalance, and I didn’t understand why it wasn’t anxiety.

Like the five stages of grief—which, as a side note, are nicely debunked in Ruth Davis Konigsberg’s The Truth About Griefthe idea that women are eternally dissatisfied with our bodies has taken deep hold in our culture. That’s not an invention; plenty of women are or have been dissatisfied with our bodies, and I’d wager that the number of women who have never felt bodily dissatisfaction could fit in my bathtub. But it’s also an idea that came to be a truism that’s actually based on something deeply contextual. Looking at the comments on this post at No More Dirty Looks about when we feel most beautiful, it’s clear that as often as plenty of us bemoan the state of our bodies, our skin, our selves, we also know that sometimes we are damned good-looking. Who doesn’t feel radiant after an amazing dance class or yoga session or run in the woods? Who doesn’t feel beautiful curled up in the arms of a lover après amour?

These aren’t the stories we hear, though. We hear the opposite—the tales of dismay with ourselves. Even when we hear about women looking at their bodies without disapproval, it’s generally framed as a tale of redemption, of overcoming the poor bodily esteem we’re all expected to have. And in my case, that story had become so entrenched that even when my own experience and reality ran counter to it, there was still a part of me that reacted to the societal narrative above my own. Which, by the way, I did: For a couple of days I actually considered going to a tanning booth in hopes that a deeper color would serve as a quick body makeover—this from someone who can check every box on the high-risk skin-cancer checklist, and who has already had precancerous cells removed. I have never considered indoor tanning before; frankly, I’m just thankful I didn’t go down some weird food restriction rabbit hole, since I know that leads nowhere good. In the end, I didn’t go tanning; in the end, I was indeed filmed in my swimsuit, and in the end, if the Today show team includes that footage in the video segment and four million people see my naked thighs, I am fairly certain the earth will continue to rotate on its axis. My baseline sense of self prevailed here, but still I wonder about why there was a part of me that let the societal narrative run on its ticker tape, nearly superimposing itself over my own authentic reactions.

I’ll be thinking on this, probably for a while. I suspect it has something to do with the ways women are punished for being vain (though it’s not exactly as though we’re rewarded for rejecting vanity either), but I think there’s more there, and I’ll be writing more about that in the future. And maybe my perspective is skewed on this; after all, I spend a good deal of my time in corners of the blogosphere that focus on women’s bodies, so maybe I’m getting a slant here that isn’t actually representative of the archetypal narrative of women’s relationship to their bodies. I’d love to hear what your thoughts are on this: When you read or hear about women’s bodies—from women themselves—is it underscored with an assumption of dissatisfaction? Or is it underscored with neutrality or positivity, or redefined each time depending on the speaker and context? Or...?

In the meantime: I'll update here when I have a firm date for the show. It’ll be my first time on national television and I’d love to go into it knowing that some readers are there with me!


  1. So interesting that you were not weirded out at all by the prospect of showing your body in a bathing suit on TV. I think there are a lot of women who'd feel like you did, but probably more women who'd be freaking out at least a little.

    In my experience as a dressmaker and a body image writer and also just as a person, most of the ladies I know who have a decent body image either (1) have bodies that hew pretty closely to the "ideal" or (2) have worked hard at changing their thought patterns so that they don't waste time and energy hating on their bodies.

    Body craziness does seem to be pretty prevalent, though. Again, it could be that in my role as a custom clothier and someone who's interested in body image, I just end up coming across lots of people who have body image issues.

    Also, as you point out, it's a fluid thing, extremely dependent on context, -- mood, hormones, outfits, lighting, and lots of other stuff. In fact, I think that remembering and mentally putting ourselves in a context where we once felt beautiful is a great way to boost body acceptance in contexts when it's more difficult to get there organically.

    At any rate I am really looking forward to seeing you on TV tomorrow! You are so thoughtful and intelligent -- can't wait to hear what you have to say.

  2. Forgive my sheerly emotional reply, but OH MY GOSH I'M THRILLED FOR YOU, AUTUMN! Please keep us posted on details so we can tune in and cheer.

  3. Um... that's awesome news!! I'll definitely set my DVR to record your thighs going national!

    Congratulations on your celebrity status and your body revelations! And reVEALations. See what I did there? *eyebrow wiggle*

  4. Aaaargh! For once, I wish we had television. Hope I can catch a clip of this somewhere online after the fact!

  5. Autumn, the issue in this post is very unusual. The main message I got from it is: it's awkward when you don't feel stressed out about your body parts seen in TV, although the mainstream thinking of XXI Century says you should. And that you should also try your best to look your best (polished) on the camera when the moment comes. You did neither of those things which is truly amazing! I'm happy for you!

    On your question. I hope I got it right because English is not my mother tongue. Well, after more than half a year of reading thought-provoking body-positive feminist blogs (including yours), I have come so far that I can't tolerate women trash-talking themselves around me. I don’t try to convince them on the opposite, I just try to nudge them into re-thinking their attitude towards themselves and other women by asking, “What good it does to say things like that? Who benefits from it?” I don’t know how well it works, but at least I am not ignorant any more.

    Sadly the trash-talking happens a lot in my working place, and among my (girl)friends as well. Partly it is because I live in the Eastern Europe, in post-Soviet country where being thin, beautiful and pulled together is kind of a must for every woman to be approved by society. Bodies and faces that don't match the highest standard or that aren't at least striving to match the highest standard often are criticized and described in very ugly words by both women and men. All in all women in our country are kind of superwomen in many ways because of the social pressure, but at the same time men - not so much (although I'm not saying that there aren't many great men too, they're just... how to put it... a minority).

    But I've moved away from the topic. These days I am happy, when I hear or read a woman praising herself (body, mind or character) in a positive way, not on expense of others. Because if a woman is happy as she is, she can accept others as they are. And that helps me feel happy about myself too because I see that you can feel great in various bodies, job positions and ages. But if a women brags about her accomplishments by insulting others, e.g., that she's happy to be thin again (lets say, after dropping 20 pounds) and that everbody who is fat is just plain spineless and unattractive and should do something about it to be as successful as she is, I don’t approve at all. And if I get a chance (if the topic comes up in the conversation) I mention that it is not OK to speak like that. No one truly benefits from it.

  6. Wow... very exciting news, Autumn! Yes, I will 'be with you' for your national TV debut!

  7. Thanks so much for this, Autumn. And congratulations on the Today programme. I can't wait to see it! I noticed you're getting a lot of mentions in the media on this side of the pond, too!

    In answer to your question, I find the women I know present their body in different ways, but often it is with this sense of a resigned acceptance of its flaws. It's difficult to articulate, but it's not a positive acceptance. More of a 'oh, well this is a flaw, and I'm stuck with it so I just have to get used to it, rather than enjoy or appreciate it.' I'm not sure if that even makes sense, but it's very difficult to respond to, as it isn't overt body-bashing. My knee-jerk reaction is (despite myself, still) the urge to contradict them and offer my own flaw. I normally manage to squash this urge, but I'm still not sure how to respond.

    But broadly, thank you for articulating something I've experienced more often as I've become more self-accepting. I often feel like you did, as though I *should* feel shame or dissatisfaction with my body. Or rather, than I should express it. Maybe you're right, and it's just a script that's entirely ingrained. Sometimes, I feel almost as though it's out of consideration for other people, though. As though, by being completely happy with my body, I'm somehow showing them up? Again, it's difficult to articulate, but thank you for this thought-provoking post.

  8. Excellent article! This is very hard to know details about women’s bodies. Right now I have learned so many things about "women’s bodies". It will help me to create report properly. Thanks dear for this nice post.
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