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Hold That Bad Body Thought*

If the beach is a place

where the usual rules

about nudity are suspended,

why shouldn't judgments

about body size be

suspended as well?

by Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter

*NOTE: We have decided to use the term "bad body thought" instead of "fat thought." We have used the term "fat thought" to refer to all the negative thoughts we direct at our bodies when, in fact, something about ourselves or our feelings is making us uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the term, apt as it may seem, perpetuates the use of the word "fat" as a synonym for "bad." So, from now on, as the new saying goes—a bad body thought is never about your body!

Brenda reported that she had tried, unsuccessfully, to buy a bathing suit. "I thought I'd prepared myself in advance," she said. "I've been doing a lot of mirror work and sometimes I can even get close to not exactly liking but mildly appreciating my reflection. I decided that I would try on a bunch of different styles and I brought quite a few suits into the fitting room. One looked more disgusting than the next. I was in such a bad state that I decided I'd better get out of there. I kept telling myself that these were bad body thoughts and that they must be disguising some other problem but that didn't help me. When you're faced with how disgusting you look in these suits, it's hard to believe that it's really something else that's upsetting you."

Heads nodded in unanimous agreement as Brenda spoke as if to say, "When you look disgusting in a bathing suit you look disgusting. Right?" Not in our view. A bad body thought is never about your body, so when you feel that you look disgusting in your bathing suit, what else might your disgust be about?

Years of such discussions as the warm weather approaches have taught us that although you may feel that a particular suit does not suit your particular body, your disgust may have more to do with how you feel about disrobing in public. No matter how much weight a woman loses before bathing suit season, she will still be visible on the beach and, raised in this culture, she is likely to have mixed feelings about displaying herself. "I look disgusting" more often than not means "I feel disgusting when I allow myself to be almost naked in public."

Think about it. Most of the year we are expected to cover up in front of friends, neighbors, colleagues, relatives and strangers. Disrobing in front of others is for intimate occasions; a certain modesty is expected in public. But for three months of the year in most of the country—longer in warmer climates—you are expected to disrobe in front of strangers and feel perfectly comfortable in your near-nakedness.

We all have fantasies about being admired for our beauty, being unconditionally accepted. Once upon a time, as toddlers, many of us ran naked into the room to a chorus of "oohs" and "ahs" and "how adorable." But those times passed and the mixed messages we received as girls about being attractive yet being reserved were extremely confusing. The looks our bodies attracted, the threats, the violations, the emphasis on our bodies all served to make us ambivalent about what started out to be natural wishes to enjoy our bodies and have them admired.

The next time you are filled with disgust as you try on bathing suits ask yourself the following questions:

"How do I really feel about being undressed at the beach? Let's say I were thinner. Would the experience be that much different? Is 'being thinner' the magic property that I and everyone else think makes it okay to be freer about revealing one's body in public?"

"Since the beach is a place where our usual rules about nudity are suspended, can I allow myself to enjoy that freedom regardless of what size I am?"

"If I find it hard to suddenly let go of my feelings of embarrassment just because it happens to be July, is there a way I could dress that would feel more comfortable to me at the beach?"

When you understand that your discomfort has to do with revealing your body in public regardless of its size, you will be able to move on to the business at hand—deciding which suit to buy or whether to buy a suit at all. As your suited reflection appears in the dressing room mirror, take a deep breath. Instead of making a judgment, ask yourself a few more questions:

"If no one else were going to see me dressed (undressed) this way, would I like the way this suit suits me?"

"Would I enjoy owning this suit even if I only put it on occasionally in my own house and look at myself in the mirror?"

"If my body were the cultural ideal, would I like myself in this suit?"

Then parade around the dressing room a bit and think about a world in which all bodies are considered interesting and beautiful. And further, if the usual rules about nudity are suspended at the beach, why shouldn't judgments about body size be suspended there as well? Then consider giving yourself permission to suit yourself!

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