When summer and heatwaves call for wardrobe rethinks, anxiety about our bodies can increase
image Dylan Sauerwein via Unsplash
words Beth Ashley
Much like clockwork, as soon as the sun comes out, my body image nosedives. I’ve always considered myself a Winter person, mostly because I’m a hay fever sufferer; I like it when the coffee menus on the high street get adventurous and Winter fashion is the elite of the seasons in my opinion. Partly, I think it’s because there is less pressure to be ‘hot’ when it’s chilly.
The UK’s recent blistering temperatures, coupled with the internet’s continuous rallying cry of #hotgirlsummer, means that any amount of clothing has felt like too many layers.
When Spring rolls around every year, there’s always an influencer and their aunt shilling the patronising “cellulite is okay” spiel, and “just wear the damn shorts” posts, with some unconvincing pictures of thin women puffing out their bellies for declarations of “Instagram v Reality”. There's even the Spanish government launching a recent promotional campaign, meant to encourage people of all body types to enjoy the beach, which altered models' bodies – one woman's prosthetic leg was actually edited out. We all know, by now, that all bodies are fine, but it's hard to transfer thought to practise in a society deeply embedded in body ideals, beauty standards, and immense pressure to conform, championing the relentless task that is “love yourself.”
So why do some people experience worsening body image issues during the summer? “Warmer weather feels exposing and the glaring sunshine can make people feel uncomfortably bare. Legs and arms are more on display in the summer months, and scars, self-harming marks, cellulite, tattoos, lumps and bumps and sweat are on display,” says Charlotte Fox Weber, a UKCP psychotherapist and author of What We Want: A Journey Through Twelve of Our Deepest Desires.
Put simply, you see more of other people’s bodies and parts of your own body you’re not used to seeing during the Summer, opening you up to self comparison. That’s always a sure-fire route to feeling insecure.
As the sun comes up, and everyone inevitably strips, it’s hard not to succumb to body pressures and start punishing yourself for all the body preparation you could have done, but didn’t. One of those people is 25-year-old retail assistant Stephanie. “Honestly I’m only just realising now how often I do it, but its basically routine now that every single Summer I start wishing I’d spent the Winter doing hardcore cardio every day,” she says. “I’m like “man, imagine how fit I’d be if I’d just worked hard?” you know?”.
Stephanie says she “overcompensates that shame a lot” by wearing fake tan and doing her hair and makeup “religiously” every day in the Summer.
“There can be an unbearable sense that the summer is some kind of missed deadline for body perfection,” Fox Weber adds. And she notes that media messages contribute to the pressure with the holiday fantasies of cute outfits and fabulous ‘beach bods’. “Those messages and images of summer fun and festivities add to the staggering loneliness and shame so many people feel for not measuring up to some picture of life,” she explains.
A lot of people, like 21-year-old film studies student Ashleigh, can get confused over whether they’re suffering from a negative body image in the Summer, or whether the season has simply inspired them to start taking care of their health. “Every Summer I look around me at all the fit bodies – great legs, abs, everything I don’t have – and start manically attending the gym like it’s an emergency. I used to think I was just inspired to get fit and it was a healthy thing but I think I just hate myself every Summer. It’s probably not a coincidence that I start Googling liposuction [every Summer].”
The thing is, body image issues aren’t always obvious. They creep up on you, especially at this time of year. Fox Weber explains that body image issues might look like happiness sometimes, perhaps even joy or self-care as Stephanie thought excessive exercising could be, ”but body image issues come in every shape and size,” Fox Weber says.
“However people appear and behave, internally there can be an unbearable preoccupation with unreasonable body ideals. The pressure to measure up to a fantasy version can be torturous.”
And if you’re not dealing with ongoing body image issues, but just having a low-confidence day where you’re not feeling yourself (we all have them), it’s hard to hide in the Summer to a point where it feels unfair. The heat often means having body parts you might not like so much out whether you like it or not. I have far too many memories of overboiling like a lobster in school because I refused to not wear tights and risk exposing what I viewed as ‘chubby, cellulite-ridden thighs’.
It’s obviously not the sun’s fault that we often feel exposed, judged and imperfect in the warmer months. Fox Weber says that people can become diminished by the pressure to match standards and expectations because our lifelong relationship with bodies is full of conflict.
“We can find ourselves playing along [with judgements and standards about bodies] while feeling alienated and ashamed of them,” she explains. “And the pressure to pretend is huge — pretend to feel comfortable even when you’re self-conscious in what you’re wearing. Pretend to feel relaxed even though you’re anxious and uneasy. Pretend not to care when you feel embarrassed. Pretending is painful, whether we admit it or not.” But while we’re busy pretending, fitting in, trying to adhere to ideals about our bodies, we’re ignoring what our actual, individual wants and needs are.
For those struggling with body image, particularly in the Summer, try blocking ads and messages that lead you to feel bad about yourself or your body, and disengaging from conversations that uphold ideas about what the ‘ideal body’ is, as much as you can.
Start with finding clarity about what you actually think and feel of yourself, of your body, of the Summer, outside of all that noise. If you know how you feel about yourself, outside influence can have less of an impact. Find ways to enjoy being in your body and appreciating it for its functionality rather than its appearance. For me, that can be through exercise, sleeping, having sex or napping. Everyone has their own versions of what a happy body feels like.
Perhaps most importantly, don’t let the pressure to love yourself immediately serve as a replacement for body demands. It’s easy to get caught in a Catch 22 of feeling bad about your body, and then feeling bad about feeling bad. There will be days where you feel like a queen, and days where you’d rather cover up and not think about your body. Both, and anything in between, is fine. They’re just feelings. And as Fox Weber says “You don’t have to love yourself entirely, but being comfortable with yourself is a relief. Your worth doesn’t depend on being seen in a certain way.”
Remember that Summer is for enjoying those extra long days with your mates, reading in the park, and being rowdy in beer gardens, festival fields, whatever the Brits call a beach – and basically nothing else.