Tess Munster's #fatkini post on Instagram.Photo: Tess Munster/Instagram
Q: How do you get a bikini body?
A: Put a bikini on.
If you get your body positivity news from mainstream newspapers and websites, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the recently hyped ‘fatkini’ craze is new. With glowing reports in Buzzfeed, the New York Post and even the UK’s Mirror, mainstream press is finally catching up to the social media movement which sees non-normative body types post photos of themselves in bikinis under the hashtag #fatkini.
In fact, the coining of the term is credited to ‘plus size’ fashion blogger Gabi Gregg who first used it on her blog back in 2012. It’s since been taken up with gusto by women typically used to being marginalised from experiences reserved for those deemed aesthetically acceptable by an ever watching society. Rather than spend summer hiding inside, cowed by corporate messaging which urges women to pluck, suck and tuck to ready their bodies for bikini season, more women are instead saying ‘f--k it’ and reclaiming their public space.
The bodies of women have always been commodified and co-opted by people intent on controlling them, and this is perhaps doubly true for women whose shapes fall outside of whichever ideals are dictating the preferences of the era. Women have historically been denied a currency and capital which extends beyond the purpose we serve to patriarchal desires, so our ability to negotiate any form of symbolic power has often been reduced to how well we conform to those desires. Currently, that capital comes from having a body that is young, thin (but still fecund) and overwhelmingly white. Points on top of this are added or detracted for prettiness of face, length and colour of hair and sexual expression.
But while deeply entrenched racism has always instructed preferential treatment be given to white or light coloured skin (check out Lupita Nyong’o’s must-hear/read speech on black beauty), most cultural markers of generic beauty are ever shifting. Angular, skinny bodies might be considered an aspirational benchmark today, but fifty years ago those same bodies were being derided as unfeminine. Instead, advertisers (who have always been in the business of making people - especially women - feel bad about themselves so that they can shill more unnecessary products that won’t change their lives) encouraged women to purchase things with names like Wate-On and 7-Power so they could turn their undesirable ‘skinny’ into va-va-voom sex appeal.
Awareness of these different beauty ideals (if not actual understanding) leads a lot of well meaning people to mourn for a time in which women were supposedly praised for their plumpness rather than vilified for it. Marilyn was a size 16! they insist, posting twee memes (or twemes as I call them) of the decidedly not-size-16 Monroe alongside messages like, “Before anorexia and implants, there was something called SEXY’.
The reality, as author Mel Campbell point out, is that breast implant surgery has been practised since 19th century and clinical anorexia nervosa, which has been described since medieval times, got its name in 1873.
‘Sexy’ has always existed but has been expressed in different ways in different eras and societies.
Which leads back to the complications thrown up by some aspects of the body positivity movement (which isn’t to say that the need for body positivity awareness and activism is in and of itself complicated or problematic). Back in February, writer Whitney Teal penned a brilliant piece for XOJane on the yearning she felt to be the ‘right’ kind of fat. Teal describes searching for the perfect ‘fatkini’, one that would “somehow push me into a new stage of life’, a goal that seemed to differ from the daydreams she’d had about being thin or generically beautiful. She writes:
“Suddenly my beauty-obsession seemed healthy. I wasn't trying to become a size 2 because, come on, I'm too old and poor to sustain a coke habit. I wasn't even trying to imagine that my stretch marks or gargantuan breasts would magically go away. The magic of the fatkini beauty ideal is that it seems attainable. It’s a way of being seen and accepted, but still flying the fat flag.”
The problem was that Teal doesn’t sport the kind of fat body that is still (narrowly) seen as acceptable by the social panopticon we are all participants of and prisoner to. The bodies of these fat women are welcomed beyond the velvet rope because they still manage to conform to aesthetic desires - bodacious boobs, smooth skin, not too rounded hips and flat belly. As Teal argues, we praise these bodies and ourselves for being seemingly progressive while still reinforcing extremely limited ideals of beauty.
Despite its susceptibility to insidious ideas about the body beautiful, the #fatkini trend still seems different to other selfie based campaigns (like the noxious #makeupfreeme). While other campaigns hinge on notions of conformity, asking that the beauty ideals and objectified be widened so that even more women can be subjected to their judgment, the #fatkini (and other fat fashion trends) is a pointedly transgressive political movement which seems to ask for an eradication of beauty rules altogether.
It’s frustrating that women are forced to waste precious time and resources staging rebellions over how much space (both physical and visual) our bodies are entitled to take up. Even though we weren’t party to the negotiations of that social contract, we’re still expected to adhere to them. So it is political act of defiance any time women brazenly flout these unwritten rules.
It will be nice to arrive at a point in time where women of all shapes and sizes can go about our business without being reminded that our most urgent task is to cultivate the erections of an omnipresent male viewer. Until then, we’ll just have to keep storming the beaches, an invading force clad in the soldier’s uniform of brightly coloured geometric prints and high waisted cut outs.
Clementine Ford is available to speak to your school or community group about body image and critical media engagement. You can find her agency here.