We’ve all seen this, no doubt.
And maybe nodded appreciatively or laughed and shared it on Facebook. And probably a lot of us have thought “what a nice sentiment…for everyone else.”
Something I have witnessed both professionally and personally (and spent many a therapy hour on) is the disconnect between intellectual knowing and felt-knowing. Or integrated knowing. Or, perhaps, embodied knowing.
We can know, with absolute certainty, that every body is deserving of care and respect, that victim-blaming is wrong, that we have a fundamental right to set the boundaries we need. And yet…
We often seem to “know” something intellectually but experience a profound disconnect when applying it to our lives. I’ve been calling those two modes “intellectual knowledge” and “felt knowledge” but I think “embodied knowing” gets closer to what I’m talking about (and you know I love to talk about embodiment).
I’ve been thinking about this specifically around the topic of swimsuits–bikinis in particular. I’ve been thinking about how I refused to wear bikinis for much of my life–hell, I refused to wear a proper swimsuit without a t-shirt until I was out of high school–and why I do now at my highest weight (though not biggest size because, of course, weight and size are not directly related). Not just why I do now, but what allows me to.
See, I started wearing bikinis at my smallest size and it felt radical and scary, because I’d internalized toxic messages about which bodies get to wear what (and, for the record, I was on the higher end but firmly in the “conventionally attractive” body size/shape range at that point–internalized shit doesn’t always track 1:1 with reality), and my body image hadn’t caught up with my losing a fair bit of weight. So in my head it was this super daring, political act.
And then I got really sick and ended up gaining a significant amount of weight in a short time and I…kept wearing bikinis. And it felt less radical and less scary.
It was around this time that I got into weight lifting, which was the first time I experienced a real sense of empowered embodiment. That helped.
It was also that I’d seen the light–in a lot of ways, two piece swimsuits are just a lot more practical. Doing a quick change behind a towel is a lot easier with a two piece. Going to the bathroom is a lot easier with a two piece. Finding a swimsuit that fits is a lot easier with a two piece if you’re different sizes on top and bottom. Wearing your swimsuit on the way to your destination is more comfortable in a two piece.
All of these things helped. But the most important piece for me was an utter rejection of the idea that I go to the beach to be looked at. I don’t mean this to imply that most people are going to the beach with the sole and explicit intent of being looked at. Rather, that women are taught from early, early ages to accept sexual objectification as an inherent and inescapable part of life, and that we internalize this gaze, the so-called “second path of sexual objectification“. Sexual objectification theory posits that women experience both external sexual objectification (harassment, cat-calling, leering) and internal sexual objectification (internalizing the objectifying male gaze).
My experience and intuitive argument (because it’s a Monday morning and I don’t feel like diving into the literature) is that self-objectification directly inhibits embodiment. That is, if our main experience of our bodies is as something that is under constant surveillance, and is valued only for what it looks like, it acts as a wall preventing us from actually being in our bodies.
Self-objectification prevents us from being in our bodies because we are essentially taking on the role of the outside observer, monitoring, critiquing, and punishing our bodies for the ways they fail to live up to toxic beauty standards. Self-objectification values form over function and actively acts to inhibit the joy and comfort we can find in being beings that move.
Now, I want to be clear that I’m not saying I made a decision to wear a bikini and now I feel awesome and fierce and super duper hot in it. Because that is the exact opposite of what I’m saying. Rather, I have made the conscious decision, over and over and over, that how I look in a bikini is not the defining factor in whether I wear it. I have worked to remind myself that an embodied experience of wearing a bikini starts with the questions of “How does this feel?” and “Does it meet my needs?” rather than “How do I look?”
I chose a swimsuit that is supportive and comfortable and that’s that. How I look in it has become a neutral issue–I’m not looking in the mirror agonizing or celebrating. It’s just how I look in a bikini.
And I’m not saying it’s wrong to choose a swimsuit because you look cute in it, rather, I’m challenging the narrative that says that only certain bodies get to wear certain things and that the defining factor in how we clothe ourselves should be how we look in them.
In order to turn my intellectual knowledge (every body can be a bikini body) into embodied experience (my body can be a bikini body) I had to find a way around the wall of self-objectification and into embodiment.
I have found freedom in choosing function over form and in utterly disavowing the idea that how I look on the beach is anyone’s business but my own. I have found freedom in declaring that how others may perceive me on the beach doesn’t matter.
So I invite you to wear a bikini or a one piece or an old timey swim costume with the reminder that it is not your job to be “pretty“. You certainly can be, but I encourage you to remember that the primary job of a swimsuit is to let you swim.