Here’s What Body-Positivity Activists Get Wrong about “Bikini Bodies”

You can’t fight body shame with more body shame. Normalizing routine social nudity must be part of the solution.

Does this type of body positivity actually reinforce shameful attitudes about the body?

I imagine it started in earnest with Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, but for quite some time now feminism has included in its lengthy list of critiques of patriarchy and culture the idea that, as the book’s title puts it, “images of beauty are used against women.”

Her monumental book, one of the most influential feminist writings in recent decades, focused largely on the way that women’s magazines, and the fashion and advertising industries in general, produce a vast volume of photographic depictions of women that do not at all resemble the average woman. Indeed most imagery you see of women in media depict women who are young, thin, white, able-bodied, straight, cis-gendered, etc. This deluge of photoshopped fantasy has an effect of “programming” all of us to have highly distorted and unrealistic conceptions of what women (and to a lesser degree, men) “should” look like.

In recent years, what started with the Beauty Myth seems to have burst out in a huge way in feminist literature and activism, especially on the internet. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I invite and encourage you to whip out your phone and check Twitter and Instagram in particular, searching for terms like “body positive” and “fat positive”. Along with a large number of more conventional reporting and blogging, you see there’s a very active community of (mostly) women who care very much about challenging this aspect of our culture.

Commonly, the body- and fat-positivity advocates challenges women to proudly take selfies and portraits of themselves wearing their favorite outfits, or their bikinis, or even in the nude while embracing their larger size, or wrinkles, or stretch marks, or breast cancer surgery scars. These women correctly recognize that if we don’t see women of more statistically common dimensions and representing diverse racial backgrounds, we may value these women less than those privileged enough to match the beauty industry’s prescribed ideal.

All of these efforts are great. I’m not complaining and I don’t think they should stop. If I were to complain about any of this I’d be a total dick, and men who complain about or shame body- or fat-positive women are assholes who need to fuck off and die. (I’m hoping that my use of curse words here will convince skeptical readers that, yes, I really do support the idea that women — and everyone — should love their bodies, regardless of size or appearance or conformity with prevailing beauty norms.)

What I take issue with is the fact that this movement, and Wolf’s original book (with the exception of a few lines near the end), and indeed everything I’ve seen on the topic seems to overlook a central factor in all aspects of our society’s dysfunctional relationship with the body. Namely, the role that a lifetime of indoctrination about the necessity of clothing plays in perverting our conceptions of bodies and the role that communal nudity can play in repairing this dysfunction.

Body shame does not start with the media. Body shame starts at home.

Your body shame is partly your parents’ fault. If you are a parent, your child’s body shame is partly your fault. Body shame is a lifetime of society not just telling people how to dress, but telling them that they must dress — at all times, even when it makes no sense such as in bed, at the beach, or while sitting by the pool.

Body shame starts the moment a parent forces a child to get dressed after bathtime. It continues when parents overreact to a silly child who’s exposing his or her private parts to the world. Shame is taught when a parent freaks out of a child’s accidental viewing of him or her in the nude. It is constantly reinforced every time you get in the water.

Body shame is also the hesitation to talk about sex or puberty or menstruation or childbirth or aging. Body shame is the idea the the breasts must never sag, that pubic hair must look a certain way, that the penis must be a certain size, that the vagina must adhere to a porn aesthetic, and most of all, body shame is the relentless indoctrination and repetition and legal enforcement of the principle that all of these parts must be hidden away at all times outside the bathroom and bedroom.

This phenomenon of body shame is often associated with feminism or thought of as a burden primarily on women, and it is frequently connected with the goal of increasing comfort with “flaws” or “imperfections” of the body. But although some certainly are more burdened than others, body shame is not at its root about flaws or imperfections or attractiveness or thinness or femaleness or whiteness or even able-bodiedness. Body shame is the constant cultural message that teaches children that the display of their body is inherently wrong, evil, dirty, inappropriate, naughty, sinful, disgraceful, tacky, sexual, and, of course, shameful. It starts there in the home with what families teach and show children about nudity. All this other baggage about beauty norms and advertising comes later as growing children become more aware of gender differences and the larger world. The shame comes first, inextricably linked to the family’s handling of nudity, followed by society’s intolerance for public nudity, and the beauty norms and media messaging comes later.

But this post isn’t about all that must be done to change the way children are culturally indoctrinated to hate nudity and their bodies. As we approach summer, I want to write about a certain body positivity meme I’ve seen passed around a lot lately. I’ve seen it countless times on social media, all variations on this mantra: “All Bodies Are Bikini Bodies”.

Often there will be a step-by-step list like:

How to have a bikini body.
Step 1: Have a body.
Step 2: Put a bikini on it.

This is fine in the limited sense that obviously any woman should be able to wear a bikini regardless of her size. But as a piece of anti-body shame messaging, this is all wrong. This is exactly where this whole movement has so completely and thoroughly missed the essence of the body shame phenomenon. It’s not the size of the bikinis or the size of the bikini wearer that’s the problem. The problem is the fact that you think you need a bathing suit at all.

You want to end body shame? Try this slogan: “No bodies are bikini bodies”.

Nobody needs to be covered while swimming. It simply isn’t necessary.

Oh, yes, I realise, unfortunately, that the law and custom dictate that it is mandatory. But if your goal is to change culture, and you want to eradicate body shaming, then you set the bar far too low when you concede any necessity for swimwear.

I don’t care how shy you think you are, there is no way to fight shame by inflicting it on yourself and others. So long as you agree that a body on a beach or pool must be covered with fabric you are inevitably indoctrinating yourself, the world, and your children and the whole next generation that there is something inherently shameful about the body.

I admire and commend larger women who put on that bikini and pose with it and courageously take to the pools and the beaches and the Instagrams and demonstrate to themselves and others that hateful comments and stares won’t stop them. You do you, and if you love that bikini, then God damn it, flaunt that shit.

I’m not saying you must go nude. I’m saying that if ending body shame is your goal, you must validate the decision to wear nothing, and insist on that option as a right.

This could reflect a much healthier attitude. No one needs to cover the body all the time, and certainly not at the beach.

When feminism and body- and fat-positivity activists ignore public social nudity as a valid and worthy option, and stress the bathing suit as a primary outlet for pride and acceptance of one’s body, their conformity reinforces the shame they say they’re trying to abandon.

This social construct that demands coverage of the body at all times, has been taken for granted across so many cultures and eras that it doesn’t seem to have a widely accepted name. Usually it is just called modesty, but that word doesn’t always fit our liberal culture and its often sexually-charged beachwear. Some call it “clothing compulsion”, which is logical, but somewhat cumbersome. The best word for it is “textilism”.

The word textilism in this context borrows from a common naturist term to distinguish between nude beaches and non-nude beaches. In Europe where nude beaches are common enough that there needs to be a word to describe the opposite, the latter are sometimes called textile beaches. To naturists and nudists, textiles are all those who reject nudity at the pool or beach.

Textilism is the philosophical or moral or legal or practical stance that nudity must be justified by necessity. In this, the prevailing mindset, nudity is highly sexual or risque, and is only appropriate with partners and in the bathroom or doctor’s office. Rather than having the easy, nonchalant attitude towards nudity that literally all other animals possess, the textiles deceive themselves into believing they are somehow above the other animals when it comes to nudity — that there is something somehow different about our genitals that would violate the eyes of all viewers who do not have the narrow textilist-defined right to view them.

Textilism is clearly nonsense. Humans lived (and some still do) without clothing for countless millennia, as did every ancestor of our species. Feminists and body positivity activists, of all people, should recognize this delusion for what it is: nothing more than the most ancient form of the imposition of unrealistic, unnatural, unhealthy, and sexist beauty norms and sexual repression.

The opposite of textilism is of course clothing-optionality, which you can call nudism or naturism. Many people don’t distinguish between naturism and nudism, but those of us who see social nudity in the context of a profound philosophical stance often call ourselves naturists, while nudism may or may not be philosophical and is the more common term in the United States.

This one is better.

You should wear that bikini if you love it. But what if you were happier without it?

If you are a very large woman, do you really want to spend the rest of your life in an endless battle to find that perfect bikini to fit your unique frame? Why not just step into a whole new paradigm?

Hopefully by this point you are thinking, “OK, so maybe nude swimming might be fun.” But you’re probably also thinking, “I can’t get away with swimming in the nude. There’s rules and laws. People will freak out.” Or: “I can’t be naked around my house, my family or roommates will freak out.”

You’re probably right. You probably cannot realistically spend much time naked, because our culture is so messed up. Since we live in a Body Shame culture, nearly everyone lacks access to an acceptable, safe, legal, and convenient location for nude swimming, sunbathing, and living. But that shouldn’t mean you should give up. This lack of access is why feminism and the Body Positive/Fat Acceptance movement must converge with the naturist movement. All of those concerned with this issue should work together on this issue.

If you do have the ability to be nude at home, or have access to an appropriate facility for nude swimming or sunbathing, then you owe it to yourself to try it. (And going skinny-dipping one time in the dark at your own home doesn’t count.)

In order to develop true confidence in your body, your practice of complete nudity should be both habitual and social. It must be habitual in the sense that you should be nude on a regular basis, not just on special occasions. It shouldn’t be an experiment in “bravery” — it should be nothing more than the full embrace of your nude body as normal, as nothing to hide. It needs to become boring.

Start by sleeping nude. Stay nude for extended periods of time after or before bathing. Stay nude after sex. If you have a pool, make nude swimming the norm. Watch TV or read or surf the internet nude. The objective here is the integrating clothing-optionality into your daily life to such an extent that you remove clothing automatically or start to literally forget that you have nothing on. This practice is essential to comfort with your body.

The next part is harder, but indeed it can be more enjoyable: You must be nude socially. This can mean being nude with family or friends, if they are amenable to it. And it means you need to learn about naturist (or nudist or clothing-optional) clubs, campsites, resorts, and beaches accessible to you.

You may find this last part frustrating. America has shockingly few facilities for nude recreation. This is where the feminist/naturist/body activist alliance comes in. Self-identified naturists are few, but if we could get even a fraction of feminists and those concerned about body positivity interested in nude recreation, that would be a huge market for the development of more and better nude and clothing-optional facilities.

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but all of us owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to future generations, to bring habitual and social nudity into the mainstream of American culture. We need to reject textilism in every aspect of culture and integrate naturism fully into feminism and other progressive causes. We need to stop teaching these harmful attitudes to children. We need to talk to friends and families about the importance of communal nudity in the fight against body shame. We need to defend existing legal nude beaches, patronize naturist resorts, and we need some brave souls to be willing to be arrested on public beaches and parks and fight textilism in the courts.

You can’t fight body shame with more body shame.

You can only fight textilism by eradicating it from your own life. You can only do that by finally embracing the undeniable truth that the human species does not need clothing. It serves no purpose much of the time, yet contributes to a destructive collective delusion of a “normal” that doesn’t exist. Textilism makes the world a worse place to live in and is partly responsible for incalculable suffering.

This good news is that this problem is reversible, and we can improve it considerably in our lifetime if we simply convince enough people to give it a shot. Humans lived nude before, and they can do it again. The situation is far from hopeless. Your role in this fight can be easy, free, fun, and you can start today. You owe it to yourself and to every person who ever couldn’t find that perfect “bikini body” to give it a shot.