Come on, girls. It's that time again. Do you have a 'bikini body'? Are you 'swimsuit ready'? Time to whip out the razors and plaster on the fake tan. Time to try the latest diet, 'detox' on green smoothies and hot lemon water, book in a sunbed. Time to try on 10 different swimsuits before bursting into hopeless tears in the change-room.
Notice how I call us by the infantilising 'girls', rendering our concerns silly and puerile. Notice how none of this rhetoric sounds any different to the stock phrases we grew up hearing from magazines, our mothers, our friends. Observe that the pressures on women to get ready for summer and the holiday season have not changed for decades, even generations. There are still articles floating around that gleefully use these terms without even a trace of irony.
But is going to the beach for a swim and some relaxation really about how good you look? Or is it about simply having a good time? Is choosing a swimsuit about how well it covers up the bits you think will offend others? Or is it about being comfortable and happy? Have we been so brainwashed by the need to appear attractive and pleasing to others that we've forgotten what our bodies are actually for?
I swim at the beach every morning throughout the year, so I'm used to seeing and feeling my body in a bikini. The jiggling thighs when I run on the sand, the pasty colour on certain bits that don't see the sun and the stray pubic hairs are all familiar to me. I no longer experience that moment of pure horror, after a winter spent covered up, at seeing my legs and hips and bum in a swimsuit. I've slowly made friends with my body, even as it changes in sometimes shocking ways as I age.
I am lucky that I'm lightly tanned all year. I don't need to wax, shave or laser. I'm lucky that I'm genetically hairless, on my legs and arms at least, so I've never had to. The stray pubic hair, well, I don't really bother. I figure if a man can't cope with seeing some hair down there, he's not really my type. No Brazilians for me.
But why is it that as soon as my once-deserted beach starts filling up, I, too, feel the need to conform to society's monolithic standards of beauty? Why is it that I can still remember -- vividly, viscerally -- the mounting countdown to the summer holidays? The sick feeling in my gut. The sneaking suspicion that I was not measuring up, and never could.
In my early teens, I recall wearing a plain white T-shirt to the beach over my modest one-piece. I wasn't worried about sunburn; none of us were in the late '80s. There was no sunscreen nor a hat to be seen. I wore it because I thought my legs were too solid, and not long enough. I was ashamed of my belly, which was slightly convex. One of my cousins wore black board shorts over her swimsuit, into the surf. Other girls wore T-shirts too, wet and clinging to their curves, like Grecian drapery. I took off my T-shirt when I was ready to swim, but sprinted across the hot sand into the ocean, worried that someone would see my thighs, and my breasts, and find them wanting.
Why do we do this to our young girls? And why do we still continue to carry this shame, this self-loathing, as grown women?
Of course. It's a multi-billion dollar industry.
We need to feel like this so that we spend money, and keep spending it until we die. At its cynical heart is a denial of womanhood, fertility, age and the inevitability of death. The beauty industry made 62.46 billion U.S. dollars this year alone. This staggers me. We all know the game by now; the way online sites and fashion magazines and advertisers conspire to make us feel less worthy, telling us that to feel better about ourselves we must smell like this or look like that. But we still don't really get it, even in our forties and fifties. And what are these shiny, false expectations doing to our daughters?
Today, girls as young as five are worried about their body image. Nine out of 10 teenage girls are concerned about their bodies, and recent research has shown that they inherit this from their parents.
Worrying about your body means you have less time to live fully. It means you have less time to learn, read, study, make, explore, take risks, laugh, enjoy.
Young women in their twenties and thirties are routinely getting Botox, fillers and facelifts. I know a plastic surgeon on Sydney's Northern Beaches whose clients are getting younger and younger for these procedures. Boob jobs are not uncommon. Labiaplasty in Australia is catching up to the American madness. Airbrushed perfection is the goal; our bodies becoming manipulated markers of status, sexual availability and youth.
So, what are our bodies really for? For walking, running, swimming, hugging, loving. They're the perfect vehicle for being utterly present. For feeling the sun beat on our skin, smelling the sea salt in the air, touching the sand and shells with our fingers and toes.
Not for being distracted by whether the guy with the beer gut strolling by (or conversely, the Adonis surfer's torso of the 20-something lifeguard) is leering (or not leering) at the bits you find least or most acceptable about yourself.
Come on, goddesses. It's that time again. Time to put on that swimsuit, and if it's a tiny bikini you want, go for it. Time to inhabit our bodies entirely, with no qualms. Time to feel the tingle of sea-foam on our bodies, the surge of the ocean tides through our hair. To merge with the sea and summer. Time to open our eyes and plunge.