Guest post by Mandy Shunnarah
Had I been with my mother or grandmother, I would have dissolved into tears within 15 minutes. And it wouldn’t have been the first time I’d cried in a Target dressing room.
All this for a bikini.
Even if someone doesn’t tell you personally, to your face, to cover up, the world does.
Every time a new line of clothing is advertised on only rail thin models, even if there are plus-size options available. Every time a new “revenge body” or weight loss-themed reality show airs on TV. Every time a fashion magazine says you can wear crop tops “if and only if” your stomach is flat. The world is telling women to hide their bodies — to cover up because we’re not meant to be seen.
The world thinks that unless women are practically 2D, they should keep as much of their skin hidden as possible at all times. And if there’s one thing swimsuit shopping over the years has taught me, it’s that the larger you are, the fewer options you have for bikinis. It’s as if the swimsuit designers don’t want to see your body in their clothes unless it’s a one-piece or a tankini.
All last summer I wore a one-piece. Not because I liked it, not because it was my style, or because I felt confident in it — but because my mother bought it for me and I felt like that’s what I “should” wear.
The truth is, I was self-conscious the entire time. I was even self-conscious wearing that swimsuit as my now-fiancé was proposing to me on the beach. In one of the happiest moments of my life, the shadow of insecurity loomed. I wondered if he’d hired a photographer I hadn’t noticed to follow us to capture to moment, and how I must have looked in the pictures.
Women are not born with innate fears about our bodies. The negative self talk, the self-consciousness, the shame, and the embarrassment are all learned behaviors. Just as we learned these thought patterns, we have to unlearn them. We must re-wire our thinking, re-write our histories.
I decided then that I wasn’t going to hide myself in a one-piece. If I’m going to be self-conscious either way, I can at least do it while getting a decent tan.
So I was in the market for a bikini. A two-piece. That showed my stomach. And my back. And my thighs. And all the things I’m supposed to feel bad about and hide in several layers of clothing, even in the heat.
While some women do feel more comfortable in more modest clothing for a variety of reasons, all of which are valid and should be respected, I couldn’t bear the thought of going another summer where I hid my body in shame and wished I could rock a bikini.
I enlisted Victoria, a friend of mine who’s feminist and body positive, to go swimsuit shopping with me at Target. I wanted someone who wouldn’t expect me to hide my body, but who would also tell me if what I picked out just didn’t look good.
We spent over two hours in the dressing room. I must have tried on 30 bikinis and Victoria was right there in the room beside me. Besides being patient, encouraging, and helpful, there were several other things she did right.
She didn’t criticize my body for not looking how it “should” look in a bikini.
Victoria didn’t point out “flaws” I couldn’t do anything about. Rather than telling me to get a longer top or a tankini to hide the rolls on my back or encouraging me to get a high-waisted bottom to hide my stomach, she asked me how I felt. Did I feel confident in the bikini?
No? Okay, let’s try another one.
Yes? Great! Do you want to stick with that one or see if they have more colors?
She was honest about what worked and what didn’t without body shaming me.
If Victoria didn’t like the way a piece looked on me, she had a concrete, non-body shaming reason why. For example, she pointed out that the more sporty tops weren’t really my style since I tend to be a little more girly. She didn’t encourage me to try tops that had underwires built in because she knows I wouldn’t be comfortable with my boobs jacked up to my chin.
She also warned me when tops looked like the might be prone to nip slips. I’m body positive, though I still like to avoid nip slips. That’s just for my own personal level of comfort.
None of these things had to do with any perceived flaws with my body. It was simply that the particular swimsuit piece wasn’t a good match for my body. That doesn’t mean something is wrong with me — it just means that piece wasn’t going to be part of my perfect bikini.
If something looked good on me, she wasn’t shy about telling me.
Some people think that if you’re past some arbitrary size, nothing looks good on you. Or nothing but a tent dress. Not Victoria.
She told me which bottoms made my butt look rounder and my legs look longer, which tops worked best with my shoulders, which pieces were more versatile if I wanted to mix and match for more combinations, and which colors looked best with my skin tone.
Again, her compliments weren’t about “fixing” whatever was “wrong” with my body. It was about finding the right pieces to enhance the assets I already have and focus on the things I like about my body. As a body positive feminist, Victoria understood that what’s most important is how I feel in the bikini I chose, not what other people think of me.
When I finally exited the dressing room, chosen bikini in hand, I felt good. And not only had I found a great two-piece, so had Victoria.
Then she said something I understood all too well: “This is the first time I’ve gone swimsuit shopping and enjoyed it. I’ve always gone with my mom and I usually cry before it’s over.”
For a moment, I was surprised to hear her say that since she’s several sizes smaller than me. She has a body that many women would envy. Then I remembered that women feeling insecure about their bodies is, sadly, damn near universal. It doesn’t matter what size we actually are or how close we might be to some idealized form because, at some point or another, the world has made us feel ashamed.
Body shaming isn’t about size. It’s about power and control. Some people need to make others feel less-than so they can feel better about themselves. And we have to fight back.
We fight back by unlearning self-hatred and negative thought patterns. We fight back by daring to feel confident and wear clothes we like, regardless of whether people think it’s what we “should” be wearing. We fight back by going clothes shopping with friends who understand the damage these learned behaviors have caused and have committed themselves to learning new ways to love themselves.
If there’s one thing I learned from swimsuit shopping with a body positive, feminist friend, it’s that I can rock a bikini.
And so can you.
Mandy Shunnarah is a writer of personal essays and book news. Her work has been published in PANK Magazine, Entropy Magazine, The Missing Slate, Deep South Magazine, Birmingham magazine, and New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention for creative nonfiction in their 2016 contest. She also writes a weekly book blog at offthebeatenshelf.com. When she’s not writing, she can most likely be found reading, and cuddling with her two adorable cats and her even cuter fiancé in Columbus, Ohio.