They may masquerade as motivational quotes, but phrases like “bikini body” and “beach body” are causing thousands of Australian women to shy away from the water. Here’s why it’s time to retire those words for good.
For some, the beginning of swimsuit season isn’t a time to celebrate – it’s a time to hide.
“For years, society and the media have portrayed an image of the ‘ideal’ bikini body that’s incongruent with the average Australian woman,” explains psychologist Nancy Sokarno, who works with mental health provider Lysn. And she’s not wrong.
Weighing in at an average 72kg, most Australian women are a size 14 to 16, yet this body type is seldom represented in pop culture or the media – and it’s something designer and blogger Nikki Parkinson wants to change.
A former journalist, Parkinson launched her blog Styling You in 2008 as a way to help women feel better about themselves and their fashion choices.
“Back then, women in their 30s and 40s weren’t reflected in magazines or campaign images,” Parkinson tells Body+Soul.
“The community of women who followed the blog didn’t feel like they were spoken to, but still wanted to care about the clothes they wore.”
While Parkinson initially stuck to modelling everyday clothes for her blog, in 2013 she decided to bare it all in a swimsuit shoot.
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“I was 46 at the time and a size 14 to 16, and I felt excluded,” she recalls.
“Swimsuit season came around and I thought I’d put my body on the line to encourage women to enjoy the beach or pool, because life is too short to sit on the sidelines.”
Overwhelmed by the positive responses, Parkinson turned the swimsuit shoot into an annual tradition, with the 2020 campaign featured here in Body+Soul for the first time.
“Women contacted me after I first posted the shoot to thank me and say that it prompted them to wear a swimsuit and get in the water for the first time in years,” says Parkinson.“Sometimes it takes one person to make you go, ‘If she’s doing it, I can, too.’”
Failure to fit in
Not letting the “bikini body” stereotype prevent you from living your life is the crux of Parkinson’s message, but even she acknowledges it can be difficult.“You think that you’re less-than because you don’t fit what society says a beach body should look like,” she explains. Sokarno agrees.
“The pressure and expectation to look a certain way has caused women to doubt themselves, and fear other people’s judgement of their bodies, and it’s contributed to women feeling overwhelmed and anxious about stripping down,” she says.
“It seems that to go to the beach, you need body fat in the right places and flawless skin that’s free of cellulite and stretch marks.” Social media is one of the biggest contributors to this kind of body-image distortion, with studies showing that the more time women spend on platforms like Instagram, the more their self-esteem plummets.
“The idealisation of cinched waists and big arses has prevented many women from feeling confident in their own skin,” adds Sokarno.
“[This body type] has been deemed beach-ready, but it’s unreachable for many women.”
In an effort to help normalise the different shapes and sizes of women’s bodies, Parkinson’s 2020 swimsuit shoot includes not just her, but six other women, too.
“This year I have women from size eight to size 18 posing with me,” she tells Body+Soul.
“We’re all aged between our early 30s and 50s, and come from different cultural backgrounds; one model is disabled. It’s about respecting that we all come in different packages because if it’s just me in the shoot, it’s not offering a lot of diversity.”
Changing the terms
While Parkinson launched her own fashion line, Styling You The Label, last year and has been stripping off in front of the camera for seven years, she’s not always bursting with confidence.“I still feel insecure, but I aim for body acceptance,” she says.
“It’s easy to slip into a mode where you pick apart your body, but then I think would I complain about the size of my breasts if I were diagnosed with breast cancer? It’s a constant battle, but I’m alive and my body has achieved amazing things.”
According to the ongoing Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health, 78 percent of women in a healthy weight range are unhappy with the number on the scale – and terms like “bikini body” only add fuel to the fire.
“These terms insinuate that there’s one size that constitutes the ‘ideal’ body,” explains Sokarno.
“But women come in all different sizes, types, colours and from all walks of life, so it would be impossible for most to liken themselves to what society has deemed a summer body.”
Over time, this inability to match the “ideal” body type can impact a woman’s self-esteem, which Sokarno notes can lead to mental health conditions such as eating disorders, body dysmorphia, anxiety and depression. So changing how we talk about the issue is vital.
“These terms can be damaging and could be the difference between a young mum getting out there and hanging in the sand with her kid,” says Parkinson.
“That’s the saddest thing, the fact that you have to look a certain way to go to the beach or jump in a pool. Every body is beach-ready, so don’t miss out on the memories by sitting on the sidelines – just jump in.”
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l“Choose something that makes you feel confident,” says Parkinson.
“If you’re running after kids or body surfing, take that into consideration when choosing a swimsuit.”
“You spend every living moment in your body, so treat it the way you would like others to,” says Sokarno.
“Positive self-talk is so important to ensure you stay in a healthy mindset, especially when you expose your body at the beach.”
Don’t cover up
“A lot of people think they should wear more fabric to hide their body, but sometimes that doesn’t work,” explains Parkinson.
“I remember wearing board shorts one year and my husband told me I looked better without them. I looked in the mirror and realised they didn’t do anything for me.”