New shape of summer: How body positivity teaches us to love the skin we're in

Pushing back against the ideal-body image, a growing number of women are peeling off the layers and stepping out into the sunshine in all their curvy glory
New shape of summer: How body positivity teaches us to love the skin we're in

Picture: iStock 

For the merest minute, you consider the bikini. You linger a little longer over the one-piece. But you finally settle for the oversized white t-shirt: your best armour for stepping onto the beach, hiding your tummy and cellulite.

Stripping down to one-piece or bikini is often a panic-stricken moment for women, who can feel exposed and self-conscious about their bodies. But with Spain’s equality ministry recently launching a summer campaign encouraging women of all shapes and sizes to enjoy the beach (with the catchphrase ‘summer is ours too’), it’s time to take a wider perspective.

It’s all in sync with the growing body-positive movement, which encourages us to embrace our size and shape – and every opportunity – with confidence and aplomb.

The BoPo movement originated in the mid-‘90s, but gained momentum in the social media age, particularly with Instagram. On their personal platforms, BoPo champions post pictures of their own striking bodies, challenging the conventional thin beauty ideal.

Just a few years ago, the movement made headlines here when BoPo Ireland was founded to highlight awareness of BoPo for people with negative body image.

Fiona Flynn, youth development officer with Bodywhys says, while the thin ideal has long been the dominant body shape we tended to see in the media, we’re now seeing more diversity in the images out there.

“We used to hear a lot from women: ‘I don’t see bodies like mine in the media – it makes me feel something’s wrong with me’. We’re seeing much more diversity, even in the last two years but there can still be a discrepancy between what you see in the media and real-life body shapes.”

Psychologist Deirdre Cowman
Psychologist Deirdre Cowman

Flood of body-perfect images 

Studies show that in general, women have poorer body image than men across the lifespan, scoring lower on measures of body appreciation, body pride and body image flexibility. But body image concerns are rising in men too, says Flynn, adding that this is reflected in numbers of males presenting with these preoccupations.

“What’s so dominant now, which wasn’t 10 years ago, is the muscular, athletic ideal, the ripped torso – again an unrealistic, unattainable ideal. So yes, absolutely, men can feel self-conscious about baring all on the beach because their bodies are under increased scrutiny.” 

Today’s teen sees more images of physical perfection in one day than their parents would’ve seen in all their teenage years, says Flynn. Which shows how prolific these images are. And it’s this very proliferation that suggests such bodies are the norm – when in fact, they’re not.

Psychologist Deirdre Cowman became involved with the international Endangered Bodies movement – begun by Fat is a Feminist Issue author Susie Orbach – and brought it to Ireland. “I could see how much body image affected people’s lives. In my own circle of friends, how much time and thought went into shape, size and weight. It took a lot of energy.

“There’s a set of cultural beliefs that values thinness above all else, that if you lose weight, you’ll feel happier. It comes from the likes of well-meaning comments if someone loses weight – sending the message weight is important, others are watching our weight – to TV makeover shows focusing on transformation, like a quick fix will make everything better. So this belief that we’d be better if we were thin is very hard to shake because it’s being reinforced all the time,” says Cowman. 

 My World Survey 2 (2019) found 44% of young people surveyed were dissatisfied with their bodies. Cowman, now working as a play therapist, regularly meets parents of primary schoolchildren who talk negatively about their bodies. “From about age eight or nine, they’re saying ‘I’m too fat, I shouldn’t eat this’. They’re concerned about how they look in their clothes, feel in their bodies.” She isn’t surprised. 

“People in larger bodies face so much discrimination about their bodies, it’s not surprising the message is internalised that bigger bodies are bad, that you’re a failure for having one. It’s almost a moral thing. Even in kids’ cartoons, the overweight character is often stupid or lazy, which promotes the message: it’s bad to be fat.” 

Plus-size model Kate Sullivan Vogelaar from Waterford.
Plus-size model Kate Sullivan Vogelaar from Waterford.

Appreciate what body can do for you

Flynn says the BoPo movement can be helpful in supporting people to accept their bodies. “Over the last decade, Bodywhys has worked closely with young people to discuss body image pressure and #bopo content has often been cited as a helpful influence.” 

She says what has been particularly useful about this content is its exposure of media production techniques – airbrushing, lighting, camera angles.

However, Flynn points out that BoPo is still focusing on body shape. What’s important, she says, is to put body image back in its place, to see it as just one aspect of who we are.

“Being consumed by thoughts about body image takes up so much attention. We forget about nourishing other parts – who am I? How do I like to spend my time? It’s important to shift focus away from body image and to appreciate what our body can do for us.” 

Flynn also believes some of the BoPo messaging around loving how you look is unrealistic. “It’s not possible to love every aspect of how you look. Having a healthy body image isn’t about loving how you look all the time or feeling completely happy with every part of your body.

“A healthy body image means accepting how you look most of the time and ensuring negative thoughts about your body aren’t holding you back from engaging fully with other aspects of your life.” 

Waterford native Kate Sullivan Vogelaar is MD of KSV Model Agency, which represents ‘all shapes, sizes and ages’. In the early days of her career, she was signed by a Dublin-based agency. “I wasn’t getting much work. I felt I was their token plus-size model. I thought why not just set up my own agency.” 

In business since 2017, Kate says demand for plus-size models is improving. “We’re not working every day of the week just yet. Ireland’s a bit behind the UK, which has plus-size models working daily.” 

She was “gobsmacked” during the recent hot weather when she texted a friend, inviting her to accompany her to the beach. “She said she wouldn’t be caught dead in a swimsuit – she’s a size 8 or 10.” 

Kate is not surprised though that body image concerns are felt across the board.

“We grew up seeing magazine articles about celebs on the beach – their cellulite, weight they might have gained. We watched makeover shows. And how many times have you been out with your Mam, your Gran, and they say ‘she’s way too big to be wearing those shorts’? It’s going to rub off on you,” says the 31-year-old.

Kate has had two children in the last few years: almost three-year-old Heidi and six-month-old Millie. “Naturally, my body has changed and – especially with the pandemic – I’ve definitely struggled with my body confidence.

“But when I’m just out of the shower, I stand naked in front of the mirror and say ‘I like this about myself’ – the way my legs look, the way my hair is. I see the stretch marks as war scars. My body has made two beautiful children. My body has been good to me. Why should I not be good to it?” 

Trisha Lewis
Trisha Lewis

Listening to your inner dialogue

Trisha Lewis, who has been on a mission to change her life for the better, understands the misgivings and second-guessings many might feel about body image. “I’ve often felt I’ve never been a normal girl, nipping into Penny’s to get a bikini. I felt that was for others. My stomach would be in knots. I’d have imposter syndrome. In the last few years, I’ve gone to the beach, Ballycotton Beach, I love it!”

 Trisha says the persistent messaging of the diet culture – ‘six weeks to a perfect body’ – isn’t what health is about. “We put value on the external aspect, when value is what we feel internally, how much we give ourselves the respect we deserve.

“Our inner dialogue is the most important thing we listen to. Whether we build ourselves up or put ourselves down, that’s what’s going to happen,” says Trisha, who urges pushing back, giving yourself permission to change perspectives.

“Say, ‘I’m going to stop believing this about myself – I want to do this, I’m going to’. And if you’re in the company of someone who’s judging others, call it out or back away. Boundaries are there to be pushed.” 

Get things in perspective, says the 34-year-old. “It doesn’t matter if you have a belly or if you’re plus-size. What matters is I’m kind to my loved ones, I get up, I eat healthily, I drink water. You are someone’s number one – turn up for them.” 

Louise O'Reilly: "Buy the swimsuit... wear your fave lippy… travel more… do all the things that YOU want to do… because life is too short… don’t look back one day and say to yourself ‘why did I worry so much about my size’." Picture: Hazel Coonagh
Louise O'Reilly: "Buy the swimsuit... wear your fave lippy… travel more… do all the things that YOU want to do… because life is too short… don’t look back one day and say to yourself ‘why did I worry so much about my size’." Picture: Hazel Coonagh

Life is too short

In a recent Insta post, Louise O'Reilly of Style Me Curvy wrote: “Buy the swimsuit... wear your fave lippy… travel more… do all the things that YOU want to do… because life is too short… don’t look back one day and say to yourself ‘why did I worry so much about my size’.

She too was that girl who “massively struggled with my own body image growing up”. She believes in habitually reminding ourselves that people are more focused on themselves than on you. “No one is looking. And I promise we all have cellulite.” 

In her 30s, Louise believes a new wave of thinking has emerged, celebrating individuality more. “Many celebrities and online content creators are working hard to break down typical body taboos and normalising cellulite, stretch marks, body rolls, weight fluctuations as an extension of who we are as opposed to defining us as people. Yes, I have stretch marks… but they don’t define me as an individual, nor should they for anyone. We’ve so much more to offer the world than purely how we look.” 

Tune out of how your body looks to how it feels, says Flynn. “Ask what do I need right now? A hot shower, a cup of tea, do I need to relax, go for a walk in the forest. Start to dress and feed yourself to support your wellbeing. Connect with your body in new ways. What feels good on your skin? And congratulate yourself for every little step you take.”

Improve your body image

Fiona Flynn of Bodywhys recommends:

  • Change your mindset: shift focus from appearance to how you feel. Remind yourself of the qualities you admire in friends/family and why you enjoy their company. Reflect on your own strengths, achievements or skills and remind yourself your worth is not determined by your appearance.
  • Take stock of the influences around body image which affect you – for example, advertising, social media. Become critical of media messages. Remind yourself these are edited to look as they do – big companies/industries are profiting on people not feeling good enough. Make conscious effort to ignore these messages.
  • ’Unfollow’ content which makes you feel you need to change yourself or makes you feel less happy with who you are. Perhaps delete ‘cookies’ or browsing history if you notice you’re receiving ‘body-related’ content based on previous searches.
  • Take time to ‘get to know yourself’. What makes you happy? Take steps to try new things and find activities you enjoy. Make wellbeing your priority, spend time with people who make you feel good. Go easy on yourself and know you can’t make changes overnight.
  • Make an effort to tune into your self-talk. Replace any criticism or harsh self-talk with the same compassionate supportive voice you might offer a good friend.
  • Treat your body with kindness, tuning into what you need and step-by-step building a positive supportive relationship with your body.
  • Additional information on body image and self-compassion at exa.mn/Bodywhys-Body-Image

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