By Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist
Many of us will feel self-conscious about wearing swimwear on holiday. We are constantly bombarded with images of perfect beach bodies in advertising and on social media. It is no surprise that this leaves many of us feeling worried about not looking like the images we see on screens.
These tips are NOT about trying to get the perfect beach body in time for your holiday. They are about accepting where your body is at this particular time, and not letting how you feel about your appearance affect your enjoyment of your holiday.
1. You are more than your body
For most people, if they think about what is important in their life and what they value, appearance does not come top of the list. People tend to value relationships, being a kind and supportive person, making a difference, using their unique skills and talents, being part of a community. The list of things that are more important than appearance could go on and on! If you look at the things you value the most, think about how well you are doing on that front. For example if being a supportive and fun friend is high on your list, think about all of the things you do related to this. This can help you to realise that appearance isn’t everything, and can put your worries about how your body looks into perspective.
Likewise, think about why you are going on holiday. You’ve probably spent weeks or even months planning your destination, your accommodation and the things you might do and see. I would bet that you haven’t done all of this with the sole aim of looking good on a beach! I think its more likely that you want some rest and relaxation, to have fun, to explore or to spend some quality time with your partner. These things are more important than how we look in swimwear.
2. Overcoming self-consciousness
When we are self-conscious we tend to presume that other people are looking at us because this is what we feel. Objectively this usually isn’t the case. Remember that all of the other people on holiday have been through the same process to get there. Booking their flights, tickets and choosing their swimwear. They did not go through all of that all to take a peek at you at the beach or the pool! Chances are won’t be feeling ultra-confident either.
Lots of people worry that the bits of their body that they dislike will be noticed by others, and at worst that someone will make a comment. Most people find that this isn’t the case and that usually people are respectful and are just getting on with their own holiday. If someone were to make a comment however, as a psychologist I would encourage you to think about why someone might feel the need to do this. To intentionally be unkind to someone with no reason to do so is a very unusual thing to do. I would suggest that it says more about them than anything and is totally not about you. You don’t need their approval.
3. Overcoming ‘compare and despair’
As humans we naturally compare ourselves to others even though we know this often isn’t helpful. We also have many biases in our perception, and this can influence how we see things in a way that it is important to understand. Our minds will often notice and remember information that we perceive to be a threat, and it does this to try and protect us. However it means we don’t really get an accurate picture of how the world is. So when we look at other people, we will naturally tend to focus on people who might be slimmer or have bodies that we perceive to be more attractive. We don’t notice the average looking people. As a result we end up comparing ourselves to a small and very skewed sample. This is just what our brains do! In order to overcome this we have to intentionally use our attention in a different way, to compensate for our skewed perception. We can do this by noticing the average looking people around us (this is most people). Not in a judgemental way like the magazines that pick out faults in people’s appearance, as this is definitely NOT helpful. But just to notice that most of us have ‘imperfections’; lumps, bumps, spots, birthmarks, scars. We’re just human living our lives, and it’s totally fine.
4. Making the most of our appearance
Confidence is a hugely attractive quality and doing working on our own confidence is going to have a much bigger effect on how you appear to others than a five-day juice cleanse. When we think about how we come across to others, or how we perceive others, we tend to get an overall impression. This might be based on things like how someone is dressed, how they speak, their body language and whether they seem joyful or exasperated. We see a confident person, or a friendly person for example. When we look at ourselves we tend to zoom in on things we don’t like, whether this be our nose or our tummies or whatever. We don’t do this when we meet other people and other people don’t do this when they see us! It is important to remind ourselves of this when our mind (incorrectly) tells us that someone might be looking at this one particular part of our body.
As an example, in my clinical role I’ve worked with people with burns scarring and many other injuries and conditions that affect appearance. My experience is that we see people as people and get an overall impression of how they come across. As an example I remember patients who had objectively severe scarring who would turn up to appointments well dressed and with shoes that matched their bag. They looked great and it came across.
So if we want to appear and feel confident in ourselves we have to make the most of what we’ve got, and wear things that we feel good in. I’m going to be a bit controversial here and say that very few people are going to feel good in swimwear that you can get on the high street for less than £10. These products are made quickly and cheaply and not to flatter us. My advice would be to think about your own confidence and the planet and give them a miss!
When we buy swimwear and clothing that fits us well and is supportive where it needs to be, then we will feel better in ourselves. This is particularly the case for bras, swimsuits and bikinis. Of course, I would never encourage anyone to spend beyond their financial means. However, making an investment in clothes that fit properly and are flattering is really important for prioritising ourselves, and consequently for how we feel about ourselves. Better quality clothing items also tend to last longer so think about investing in items that are classic that will last a few holidays.
5. Body positivity and social media
It is important for us to recognise that the idealised images presented to us by the media are unrealistic. In recent years the body positive movement on social media has gone some way to presenting us with a different narrative. This includes individuals with a wide range of body shapes and sizes promoting positive messages about loving or at least accepting our bodies without trying to change them. Anecdotally many people find these accounts helpful. From an evidence perspective however, it is too early to say whether following body positive accounts or hashtags can have a positive impact (Cohen et al., 2021). There is also a concern that whilst the overall message is intended to be positive, that the #bopo movement is overly focused on appearance and actually objectifies our bodies in a way that is unhelpful. This is actually in direct conflict with my earlier point that ‘you are more than your body’.
So how do we navigate this? My advice would be that if you find it helpful to follow individuals with body positive messages on social media then that’s ok. However I would encourage you to think about whether you admire or feel a connection with the person you follow for something other than their appearance focused content. If they solely post about appearance then it may not be a balanced or helpful account to follow. If they are living their lives at a different size/shape/with a disability or visible difference and they give a more rounded picture then that is probably more realistic and helpful.
Likewise, choose one or two body positive individuals to follow rather than it taking up your whole feed. Like anything we need balance. Social media has its downsides, but it does give us a unique ability to curate the content that best works for us so make sure you think carefully how to make this work for you. For me personally, an occasional #bopo post mixed in with cat, travel and food posts is the kind of balance I strive for!
Cohen, R., Newton-John, T., & Slater, A. (2021). The case for body positivity on social media: Perspectives on current advances and future directions. Journal of health psychology, 26 (13), 2365-2373.