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Illustration by Brittany England

If you Google the phrase “Get a beach body,” you’ll find yourself among a sea of tips, tricks, and how-tos — all promising weight loss, toned muscle, and a renewed sense of confidence in that skimpy bikini or those tight swim trunks.

A “beach body” — much like the post-holiday diets of winter — has firmly imbedded itself as the must-achieve fitness goal of summer. We see it gracing the covers of glossy magazines. On advertisements to lure potential customers into a new gym membership or detox package. There’s even an entire fitness company, based on a pyramid sales structure, who uses this phrase as its moniker.

Yet in recent years, many have started calling the beach body what it really is: Another way to shame people into meeting society’s unattainable expectations.

After all, isn’t the whole point of going to the beach to allow yourself time to relax, without dragging the demands of everyday life along with you? That includes the stress of body confidence.

To find out what our community thinks about this loaded phrase, we asked four of our readers to give their own opinions on the matter.

Here’s what they had to say:

Michelle Allison

What does a ‘beach body’ mean to you?

To me, a beach body means any body that can get to a beach! I know a lot of advertisers and people use this term as code for looking slender or toned in a specific way, or having the kind of body that is “allowed” to wear a bikini in public — as if there are laws about who can or can’t wear a bikini.

Personally, I’m a fat person and I love the beach. If my body is at the beach, then it’s a beach body.

Having a body should be more about experiencing life through, and with, your body — and less about curating that body from an external vantage point to appeal to somebody else or some standard outside of myself.

How did you come to understand it this way?

I came to this understanding after a long period of my life where I denied myself experiences, like going swimming, or going to the beach. I had internalized cultural messages that my body was incorrect, shameful, and that I should hide it at home until I had whittled it down to some appropriate size.

I lived like this for years. That was until my 20s, when I recognized that it was a scam and it was wasting my time on earth. It took a lot of years and a lot of little steps, but I started going out more (in my fat body!) and doing the things I used to like to do.

Sometimes I even go to the beach and go snorkeling!

What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone who’s stressing over wearing a bathing suit this summer?

I would say to someone struggling to put on a bathing suit: I totally understand why you are stressing. We’re surrounded by made-up rules and pressures to be and look a certain way. It makes sense to be stressed.

The pressure is real, and it gets to us, and it’s not easy to escape.

At the same time, none of us has forever. Our time is short, our lives are precious and brief. The world is a beautiful place. Sand is a billion tiny, granulated stars that we can sift through our hands, and swimming feels like floating through thickened air.

I don’t think those things are worth missing out on because of some made-up rule that only people who look a certain way are entitled to experience them. It’s worth pushing back on those rules, even if it’s a little bit at a time. If you like the beach but you’re too scared to wear a bathing suit, go to the beach in whatever you’re comfortable wearing. I like to wear swim capris because I’ve never been comfortable showing lots of skin.

But find a way to let yourself be there.

Have the experience.

Turn your attention inward, to what it feels like to touch the sand or to feel the water or the sun on your skin. Focus on what you experience through your body, and return to that over and over when your mind tries to revert to seeing yourself from an external gaze.

Describe your favorite summer activity or memory and why you love it.

As a kid in the summer, my family would go camping in the redwoods in Northern California, in a camping spot by a tiny creek with perfectly clear, cold, green water. I would spend so much time in the water, with my snorkel and mask chasing crawdads and minnows, that my lips would turn blue.

The water was so cold, we’d store our milk and cans of pop at the deepest part of the creek and go diving for them when someone needed a drink. It is one of my favorite memories.

Imani Barbarin

What does a ‘beach body’ mean to you?

It’s very simple to attain a beach body: You’re in one.

It may be difficult to access the beach for a myriad of reasons, but never question your body’s readiness for fun in the sand.

How did you come to understand it this way?

I used to read the same magazines as anyone else. I thought that I would exercise or starve my way into the perfect body — and that anything short of that would be an embarrassment.

I came to realize, though, that I can’t allow the projected thoughts of a few people I would never see again, to keep me from my love of the water and the beach. While it can be exhausting, I’m 99 percent sure that I will never again see the random people that may judge me at the beach, but I’m 100 percent sure I will regret compromising my love of the beach for them.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone who’s stressing over wearing a bathing suit this summer?

My advice to anyone self-conscious about their body is to remind them that loving yourself comes in fits and starts, and isn’t always consistent. It takes just a few brave moments to get it started though.

Take this moment as an opportunity to celebrate yourself and to have some fun.

Describe your favorite summer activity or memory and why you love it.

My favorite activity is to swim. I love feeling weightless, and it’s an easy way for me to truly explore what my body can do.

I can remember going to the beach with my family and my parents slowly dipping me into the water to get me used to the feeling. Ever since then, I haven’t been able to stay away.

Emily Ladau

What does a ‘beach body’ mean to you?

I’ve always viewed “beach bodies” as a personally unattainable ideal perpetuated by narrow-minded media outlets. It’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve realized I need to reframe that, because every body is a beach body when you’re on the beach.

How did you come to understand it this way?

A “beach body” was never a body type I aspired to — at least not in the sense that the media defines it. As a disabled woman who uses a wheelchair, sandy beaches are rarely accessible to me, and so I haven’t been to many.

I wasn’t busy worrying about how I looked laying out in a bathing suit. Instead, I found myself wanting to be comfortable showing my skin.

I worried about my body being visible, because I have surgical scars running up and down my legs. I worried because I’m not particularly thin. I worried because I didn’t want to call more attention to myself.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone who’s stressing over wearing a bathing suit this summer?

Your body houses all of who you are. You may not always love it, and others may not always be kind, but don’t deny your body freedom to be in the open air.

It deserves it.

You deserve it.

Describe your favorite summer activity or memory and why you love it.

I went to summer camp for disabled kids for several years. I spent tons of time in the pool there, and it was so [liberating] to be in a place that felt so free of body judgment.

Ragini Rao

What does a ‘beach body’ mean to you?

A beach body is the body of anyone who’s at the beach! Beach bodies come in all shapes, sizes, and skin tones because the beach is for everyone to enjoy.

How did you come to understand it this way?

I learned to swim when I was 18. It was a very difficult time for me — I was severely anorexic and suffering from major depression, brought about by the onset of borderline personality disorder.

When I started swimming, it was the first time that my body really felt like it belonged to me. I spent that summer almost entirely in the swimming pool and it was amazingly therapeutic. Swimming has been my favorite physical activity since then.

Even after my eating disorder abated and I gained back the weight, I continued to swim. I’d feel self-conscious in my swimsuit during the walk from the changing rooms to the pool, but once I was in the water, it just felt like coming home.

Like I was meant to be there.

After I came across the concept of fat positivity and started accepting my body in all its fatness — as it was and is now — it was easier to let go of the self-consciousness. Not just in the water but on land, too.

Every single person, no matter what they weigh, deserves to feel that pure uncontained joy I feel every time I dive into a body of water. Every single person deserves to have the experience of swimming in the sea — which, frankly is out of this world.

Restricting that to the small number of people whose bodies conform to prevailing beauty standards is completely abominable. The beach is a universally joyful experience for all people of all sizes, and that’s how it should be.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone who’s stressing over wearing a bathing suit this summer?

One of the life-changing realizations I had back when I’d be self-conscious about wearing a swimsuit in public is this: Everyone is insecure.

It doesn’t matter how well someone conforms to beauty standards, they’re still going to be insecure. And most of the time, people are too wrapped up in their own insecurities to spend any kind of bandwidth on strangers.

So even if you feel that you’re sticking out like a sore thumb, in reality, most people are too concerned about their own insecurities to even notice you. And the ones who do and react negatively — they’re pretty much just projecting to make themselves feel better about all the things they hate about their own bodies or lives.

People who are content and secure in their own bodies don’t make a habit of harassing others.

Describe either your favorite summer activity or memory and why you love it.

Swimming in the sea. I moved to Newcastle upon Tyne a few months ago and, having lived in land-locked places most of my life, I still have difficulty believing that the beach is just 20 minutes away.

I can have beach days every day if I want to! It’s glorious and unreal.

So, this summer I’ve been swimming in the sea and nothing compares to the feeling of floating in the ocean with the sun on your face and the sky arching above you. It’s magical.

Michelle Allison is a registered dietitian in Toronto and active on Twitter.
Imani Barbarin has a Masters in global communications from the American University of Paris and is a disability blogger who focuses on disabled representation. You can find more of her work on her website and follow her on Twitter.
Emily Ladau is a passionate disability rights activist, writer, speaker, and digital communications consultant whose career began at the age of 10, when she appeared on several episodes of Sesame Street to educate children about her life with a physical disability. Emily’s work can be found on her website, Words I Wheel By, and she’s been published on websites including The New York Times, SELF, Salon, Vice, and Huffington Post. All of Emily’s activism is driven by her firm belief that if we want the world to be accessible to people with all types of disabilities, we must make ideas and concepts surrounding disability accessible to the world. Follow her on Twitter.
Ragini Nag Rao is 33 years old, and blogs about plus-size fashion and fat positivity at A Curious Fancy. She can be found on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Ragini lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, England with her husband, and no dogs (yet).