The Bathing Suit: Body Image and the Pursuit of Satisfaction

Essays, Uncategorized

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The seaside city of Busan was marked by below chilly weather and relatively deserted beaches with biting wind at that time of year. Yet, with a few friends, I decided to make the trek there through Korea during a winter holiday.

“Taking your bikini?” A friend asked days before, face alight with laughter as we ate Korean fried chicken on Valentine’s day, still bundled in our winter coats although we were indoors.

“First thing I packed,” I answered, giggling with her over the absurdity of it, then watched as she mimed feeling up a six-pack of abs over the dinner table, fingers turning with every imagined contour.

In reality, it sits in one of the drawers in my studio apartment. Stringy, lacy, and the perfect minty-green against my pale to warm-olive skin.  It’s delicate, and girly, and maybe a bit too tiny to be completely comfortable. Buying it had been a risk—an emergency purchase after leaving my safe one-pieces at my university apartment over the summer. A rush trip through two towns with no luck finding any cute, body-conscious, appropriate pieces led me into my last resort mid-bathing-suit-season store: Victoria’s Secret.

I looked for one-pieces high and low, but the shelves were threadbare, having already been picked over by bumbling thirteen year olds with flawlessly straight, blonde hair, popping their gum, and gushing over how they had “the best bathing suits evah.”

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The mint color stood out to me, the color of that season, though I had never been one to wear much on trend. I found that when I tried to follow the style or the colors, things always looked out of place on me. With fear and trepidation, though, I grabbed the matching set from the rack and stalked towards the fitting room. When I asked for a fitting room, I saw the judgment in the eyes of the attendant. You, her eyes accused, will wear that? It brought out every fear I had of the stringy two-piece.

Three years before this, I donned triangle bikini tops with thick bands and skirted bottoms to conform into the idea that proper beach wear involved two pieces. Every other high school student wore one and my 5’2”, 105 pound mother told me horror stories of how one-pieces distorted the figure more than they helped it. But this was three, almost four, years later. College stretched and contorted my body. Ungainly pounds attached and rolled on my front, my sides, and my back. All I could thing was “hide, hide, hide.” Workout, my mind told me, and nightly I would hit the gym, while by day I would suck down Chick-fil-a fries and McDonalds burgers.

The only changing in shape I saw was more inches being added. Although I knew that I lacked the body, the oh so desirable womanly shape, that was all curves and somehow lacking in body fat, I peeled off my clothes and adjusted the scraps of material over myself. In the lighting of the dressing room, I thought, “I can do this. I can wear this.” And I handed over my dad’s credit card to pay $90 dollars, unbeknownst to him. The life of a college student with no summer job.

That summer, I let the sun hit my midsection for the first time in years, turning it from a pale white to a light bronze. Laying out at my grandpa’s pond, my aunt complimented the bathing suit as beautiful and the color as looking great on my skin tone. I awkwardly adjusted the suit and prayed none of my cousins would bring their friends around, all the while feeling strangely confident with my body.

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Five months later, home for Christmas, my aunt commented, “Have you lost weight? You look way better than you did this summer.” The next summer, the bikini was replaced with a one-piece bathing suit once again. And now that mint, lacy, glorious, dreaded bikini rests in one of my drawers surrounded by doubts and apprehension.

Last summer, I lost a little over ten pounds, and I tried it on, proud and confused. It fit. It emphasized. I hardly noticed my love handles or the rolls on my stomach. I felt good, but not good enough. I imagined taking pictures with friends and looking like a beached whale. And while I could gloss over the shortcomings in my shape, I knew that other people would not. I could see people’s eyes looking at me, thinking, “How could she wear that?”

A bikini is sexy and confident, but how, my mind wondered, can anyone who doesn’t have a perfectly flat stomach, who doesn’t fit in with society’s imaginings of beautiful and sexy, wear such a piece? And why does this article of clothing, worn only at specific times in a specific season, matter so much?

Women spend months attempting to build a “beach body.” Workout videos urge viewers to think about how they want to look come beach season. Covers of magazines boast scantily clad women with wind-tossled locks of hair staring confidently into the camera. The bikini becomes not merely functional, but a body status symbol. And when people fall short of the mark, the results are scathing.

Yet, many magazines have tried to show “real women’s bikini bodies.” Women with rolls and curves. Women who submitted their own pictures in an attempt to show a beach confidence most people lack while their own bodies didn’t fit into the standard called on by Cosmo or Vogue. ModCloth, an online clothing company, had its employees pose for a photoshoot in their bikinis, to show confident women looking fantastic in a bath suit without having their ribs poking through their skin. There have been campaigns that have called for women to send in their bikini pictures, to show real bodies. Many of the women are applauded for their bravery, while there are still some harsh and hurtful comments. Overall, the confidence these women show is amazing, and I am proud to see women take risks and begin to be confident in bodies that aren’t considered ideal by popular magazines.

All this is to say is that in the last year, I lost another ten to fifteen pounds (I secretly believe that sustained eating of kimchi and rice somehow led to this weight loss). I am now the same weight that I was in high school, though I am highly aware in the various differences between the two bodies. At the beach, I donned the bikini once again to hit the waves, feeling the same strange mix of fear, trepidation, and pride in where my body has been and come to. My fingers still itched for my familiar one-pieces, but the odd confidence said no, even as I was surrounded by unbelievable thin women with little to no fat to speak of.

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Satisfaction, I have learned, will never come from my weight. I have now surpassed what I considered the perfect, impossible weight to be after college, and I still look at my body and see ways in which it can be improved and bettered. I look at Instagram and blogs and think that my body looks great until a compare the pictures. I also, however, lack the will to give up things that I love to have that sort of body. Pizza, chocolate, fried foods, ice cream please and thank you.

If I am constantly trying to find satisfaction and comfort in how I look and how my body compares to others, I will simply never be satisfied. There will always be those slimmer than I am, more fit than I am, less curvy in the places I would like to be less curvy. And here’s what I’ve learned from this battle with weight and bikinis: that next pound, two pounds, three pounds will never be enough.

I felt somewhat confident at my greatest weight. I ran far distances, did a half marathon, was more active than I have ever been, but I knew that I wanted to lose some of it. When I lot ten pounds, I thought it was great, but then I wanted to lose some more. When I stepped on a scale and realized I was lighter than my ideal weight, an impossible number that I was in no way striving for (through this, I just continued to eat the same Korean food I always ate), I was mystified. And now, I still think, maybe just three more pounds then I’ll be great.

Three more pounds won’t satisfy me is what this has told me. My weight, my body, will always fail to please me. So many of the ads urge women to be proud of the bodies they have and their curves. I am unbelievably pleased for those women who feel satisfied in what they look like. But, for me, I see that I need to look for my personal satisfaction in something other than my weight and my body. For me, this comes from my relationship with God. Only in that can I truly be satisfied, can I see how completely I am loved through the cross, how I am pursued, how I valued deeply and truly down to the very core of my being.

Anything else, and I would be longing for more, more, more. More money, more food, more trips, more life. So, I’ll wear that bikini. I’ll wear it knowing that there are faults and defects in my body, but I’ll also wear it knowing that my body bears beautiful battle scars and tells a story and that my body, my bikini, my weight, is not where my sense of self and identity lie.

What do you find your satisfaction in? Do you have a body story?

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