Navigating the Pressures of Swimsuit Season

A group of friends at the beach

Swimsuit season. Beach body. Bikini ready.

The terms are thrown around casually every summer. In regular conversation, on social media, and via media and advertising, we’re hit with messages that suggest we must prepare and perfect our bodies before changing into warm-weather clothing. “Get ready” for the summer, the messages say, by getting your body “ready.” “Follow this workout, stick to that diet plan, and you’ll look and feel your best!” The noise is hard to escape.

This summer, we’re confronted by messages not only about “beach bodies,” but about “post-pandemic bodies” as well. We hear and see chatter about getting our “pre-pandemic bodies” back. Diet and exercise routines are sold as a way to “fix” any COVID-related body changes or to make up for the pandemic time we “should’” have spent fixing our bodies. Amid this noise, we may also feel anxiety about others seeing us in person again, fearing body judgment or commentary. 

Combine the “summer body” pressure with the “post-pandemic body” pressure, and it’s no wonder that this summer is a challenging time for those experiencing body image concerns, disordered eating, and eating disorders. But while Summer 2021 is a unique time to reenter and reconnect with the world and our loved ones, we actually don’t need to change our bodies at all to do it.

In this article, Dr. Jillian Lampert, Chief Strategy Officer of The Emily Program and Veritas Collaborative, helps us explore how we can all practice self-compassion this “swimsuit season” and help our loved ones do the same.

Summer body image concerns

Summer is a common trigger for people struggling with eating disorders and body image concerns. With its warmer temperatures and more revealing clothing, the season can exacerbate body dissatisfaction and anxiety about appearance. Dr. Lampert says these concerns are often magnified when others discuss their own body issues, make appearance-related comments, or promote diet culture’s “beach body” concept. 

“When we say those things around people who are really uncomfortable in their bodies, their discomfort is heightened even more,” she explains. “And when we compare ourselves to others, oftentimes, we wind up feeling less than.”

The summer—and especially this summer—also brings additional opportunities for social events and get-togethers, which can also be high-anxiety situations for people with body image concerns. As Dr. Lampert says, “Maybe we haven’t left the house very often in non-athletic or leisure attire, and are expressing concerns like ‘I forgot what it’s like to wear jeans.’” Add to this discomfort the triggers related to food and eating around others, and social events can be incredibly challenging occasions.

Social media and the “ideal summer body”

Instagram, TikTok, and other social media are among the influences that reflect and reinforce the pressure of the ideal summer body. But, Dr. Lampert reminds us, the “summer body” we see idealized is a myth. It doesn’t exist; it cannot actually be achieved in real life. “We’re not highly edited, staged photos with strategic angles 24/7 when we’re walking around in the world—we’re real people,” she says.   

While social media does offer some benefits, the good comes with risks. Algorithms can set you down rabbit holes and engulf you in images and messages promoting diet culture ideas. It often takes a deliberate effort to find the positives and leave the rest. To do so, Dr. Lampert recommends actively curating your social media feeds to incorporate accounts and influencers who are body-positive or body-neutral.

“Social media is one of the areas we focus on in eating disorder treatment,” she explains. “We know that social media is highly reinforcing—that your brain can experience a dopamine spike when you look at something rewarding and makes you want to look more.”

She suggests that people in eating disorder recovery could also consider taking a social media break or putting limits on their consumption. Then, with support, they can work to better understand why, how, and when they want to consume and engage with content online.

Ways to practice self-compassion this summer 

Coming into this season of reconnection isn’t really about our bodies, Dr. Lampert says. It’s about our relationships. If you find yourself overly focused on how you look this summer, she recommends a language shift toward compassion and gratitude. Instead of thinking of all the things we “have” to do in the next couple of months, consider adopting the word “get.” “You get to do things that you haven’t been able to do for so long,” she says for example. “You get to see these people that you haven’t been able to see for so long.” 

Dr. Lampert also says that it’s important to acknowledge the many emotions you may be feeling about reconnecting with others this summer. Maybe you feel excited. Or maybe you feel anxious, scared, nervous, or sad. Often, how we feel about our bodies is influenced by our emotional state, and tending to our emotional needs is good self-care during the summer and beyond. 

How to help a loved one navigate summer body image concerns 

If you’d like to support a loved one navigating body image concerns this summer, a great place to start is with yourself. Reflect on how you feel about your own body and what you say and model. Dr. Lampert says, “We can really influence and support somebody in their recovery by being positive, or at least neutral, and appreciative of ourselves. What are you saying about your body? Are you talking about the way your clothes fit? Are you engaging in diet talk?”

Comments about food or bodies—both our own and others’—aren’t helpful to anyone, and this diet talk is especially not helpful to others struggling with body image. As we reconnect with others, use this opportunity to explore topics unrelated to food, body, or eating. “Instead, focus on reconnecting, experiencing the present, and be aware of what you’re broadcasting, because those are all things that your loved one will pick up on,” says Dr. Lampert.

In eating disorder treatment, the focus is shifted away from changing the body to changing the way we feel about the body. We celebrate what the body does for us and how we can be gentle with it, instead of disparaging it or being disappointed by it.

People may still feel uncomfortable in their bodies during treatment, but Dr. Lampert says that’s often part of the process. “We think the part of the brain that is involved in body image and body perception is one of the last to change and reconfigure to the current reality,” she explains. If people with eating disorders focus on nurturing themselves and their bodies, body perception can catch up.

And that’s where the focus should be for all of us. While we cannot completely eliminate diet culture messages this summer, we can put our effort toward self-compassion and body trust. Our bodies—exactly as they are—carried us through what was an incredibly difficult year. Treating them with kindness is a way to thank and honor them.

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