Hot Fat Summer: An Ode to Beach Bodies at Every Shape and Size
Summer is the best time to fight back against fatphobia.
There’s a moment that’s always hard for me but has gotten easier over time, and that moment is standing on the beach or at the pool and taking off my clothes — whatever clothes I’m wearing over my bathing suit. When I reveal my fat body to the world in a swimsuit, all its girth and fleshiness swathed in small amounts of tight, stretchy fabric, I always hold my breath a little and wait.
There was a time in my life when I expected that wearing a swimsuit in public would cause people to run away screaming and pointing at my body, but now I know that being at the beach is pretty much like being on the dance floor: Most of us are worrying about ourselves and don’t have much brain space left over for judging others.
Certainly, there are the occasional jerks whose fatphobia is raging at such a high volume that they feel compelled to stare or say something cruel. After all, in a culture increasingly attuned to empathy and respect, making fat jokes or comments about a fat body’s grossness or imperative to lose weight is still, in certain circles, considered acceptable or even funny. (It’s important to acknowledge here that I’m a white, able-bodied cis woman who usually wears a size 20 or 22, so I hold significant social privileges and powers sometimes denied to larger fat people, fat people of color, and disabled fat people).
But for the most part, going to the beach now is better than it was when I was a kid, even though I’m much fatter now than I was then. Some of this is societal, some of it is pragmatic, and much of it has been achieved therapeutically. It is possible, if not to change the way your own eyes see bodies, to change the way your brain and heart experience their shape and appearance and to disrupt the harmful correspondences many of us were taught to make between fatness and words like “disgusting,” “gross,” “unattractive,” “unhappy” and “unhealthy.” Notice how even here, our culture can only track fatness according to what it is not. We have so few words for fat joy.
That’s what I feel at the beach and the pool: joy. Swimming is perhaps the only thing I do where I feel truly in my body and able to move it joyfully. As a human person, I love the sensations summer swimming offers: the heat, the relief of the cool water, the buoyancy, the shimmering aliveness of skin and the peckish hunger that comes after, when you’re drying on land. You’ve done something when you’ve swum, something that’s more than relaxation and more than exercise. It’s a little bit of magic.
Let’s linger for a moment on all the barriers that stand between fat people and this magic. Let’s begin with the societal. The messaging to strive for a “beach body” is annual and aggressive and starts earlier and earlier. If I weren’t so diligent about blocking and reporting summer-themed weight-loss ads on Instagram, Twitter, Hulu, and other streaming services as well as podcasts, the barrage would have begun around February and been ceaseless.
Even so, I can’t completely avoid them, and they’ve only intensified in this, the third summer of COVID. Areas of media and folks I previously considered to be enlightened have disappointed me during the pandemic, as people bemoan “the COVID 15.” Americans are fatter than they used to be; this doesn’t mean we’re unhealthy, and diets don’t work. Our best scientific evidence indicates that “one-third to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lost on their diets.” So it’s time to accept that a beach body is just a body on the beach.
Second, the pragmatic. Choosing the right swimsuit is key for maximum beach or pool comfort and joy. For a long time, I chose my wardrobe mostly with the goal of covering my body up as much as possible and blending in with the scenery. A bikini was basically unthinkable — it was tankinis and board shorts for me all the way. When I was a fattish teenager, it seemed the only place to go for swimwear was Filene’s Basement, and when you reached the bigger end of the rack, the suits were all printed with paisleys and swirls that were much more Grandma’s couch than cute pool party. I remember a lot of matronly Lands’ End swimwear, too — products more appropriate for age 56 than 16.
But my, how the times have changed. From Gabi Gregg, a.k.a. Gabi Fresh’s line at Swimsuits for All, to Katie Sturino’s fat swimsuit Instagram roundups to fashion-forward offerings at Wray NYC and Em & May and on-trend examples at Eloquii, there are more options than ever for plus-size bathing suits for folks of all style inclinations.
“Most plus-size women are told either directly or indirectly — through clothing options — that fashion isn’t for them, let alone swimwear,” Gabi Gregg told Bustle in 2016. “So to have stylish clothing and now fashion-forward, trendy swimsuits is a really big deal.” Gregg’s offerings routinely include plus-size bikinis, or “fatkinis,” a term she’s credited with coining in 2012.
“Gabi exemplified something I hadn’t fully realized,” Lydia Okello recently wrote for Vogue in a piece called “The Fatkini and Me: How a Viral Moment Helped Me Find Confidence After a Lifetime of Covering Up.” “[S]tanding by the pool in a vibrant black-and-white chevron-printed suit, [Gregg] was showing us fellow plus-sized folks that the world won’t stop when you put on the two-piece.”
These days, I’m as apt to reach for a two-piece bathing suit as a one-piece, which definitely points to how far I’ve come. I’m privileged to have time, access, and disposable income to put toward actively learning ways to improve my relationship with my body, and Philly is full of excellent fat-positive resources and providers to learn from. The work of fat acceptance is different for everyone, but for me, a combination of approaches directing an accepting lens at my body and mind simultaneously produced the most positive changes.
My BMI qualifies me as medically obese, and every health-care provider I’d ever gone to told me I needed to lose weight even though my blood pressure, A1C and metabolism all are within the normal, healthy range. There was nothing wrong with me medically, but every time I saw a doctor, I came away feeling like there was. Eventually, I figured out there had to be another way.
Through the Health at Every Size directory, I was able to find a general-practitioner doctor who didn’t make me feel like my body was wrong and damaged. I now see Vicky Borgia at Radiance Medical Group, and the experience has been nothing short of transformational. The initial intake appointment took 90 minutes.
“We’re going to talk through your medical history, and you’re going to cry,” Borgia told me beforehand. Ha! I thought. I’d talked about my body and shitty doctors to friends so many times that the material no longer felt raw to me. But the experience of sitting in a doctor’s office with a physician who genuinely wanted to help me and treated my body with respect was a radical experience.
Borgia told me that I didn’t need to lose weight in order to be healthy and that should I wish to become pregnant at any point, I also did not need to lose weight to do that. Many doctors would refuse to treat me as a fat pregnant person, but they were in the wrong, she said, and other doctors would treat me. As a direct-to-patient provider, Borgia had the time to actually talk with me, hear about my health concerns no matter how small, and offer her professional opinion. I definitely cried.
I’ve also found that simply knowing and becoming friends with other fat people and people who have overcome eating disorders has been crucial in thinking more positively about my own body and my relationship with food. I benefited enormously from a Fat Positivity group that was run out of Walnut Psychotherapy in Center City and facilitated by therapist Melissa Krechmer. Through discussions of readings on the Health at Every Size framework and other foundational fat-acceptance tenets, this group laid the emotional and intellectual foundations that let me break the fundamental link between “fat” and “bad.” Fat could just be another descriptor, such as tall, pale or redheaded.
Some of my fellow participants and I went together to Jacob Riis beach, known throughout the New York and Philly corridor as simply “the queer beach.” Lying on the sand in a group of other hot fat people, all of us wearing fatkinis with whimsical prints, I felt a kind of comfort, peace and joy I had not previously known was possible.
That beach trip recalled a scene from the television show Shrill in which the main character, Annie (played by Aidy Bryant), attends a “Fat Babes Pool Party” at which most of the attendees are fat women. At first, Annie, dressed in black jeans and a blue button-down, clings to her clothes and can’t seem to join in the fun. But as she watches more and more fat people in skimpy swimsuits moving their bodies both on land and under water and appreciates the jiggling of all that happy exposed flesh, she can’t help but strip down and join in. There’s something about being in the company of other fat people that can change the whole emotional and pragmatic landscape. If you’re fat and want to feel good in your body, I highly recommend making friends with other fat people and going swimming with them.
Of course, there are still bad days for me — bad moments, and many of them. In The Body is Not an Apology, Sonya Renee Taylor writes, “The act of giving yourself some grace is the practice of loving the you that does not like your body.” I think about this a lot. When loving my body isn’t possible, there’s this other kind of love.
There’s also a difference between knowing intellectually that your fat body is beautiful and truly feeling beautiful. For this personal work, which involved confronting old feelings of shame and family trauma, I turned to local therapist Jenny Weinar, who runs Home Body Therapy. In her “Embodied Healing” group, I learned much more about Intuitive Eating, a way of thinking about food that’s focused on responding to the body’s natural cues about hunger and satiety rather than subscribing to external ideas of “good” or “bad” foods and quantities, and what practicing it requires on an emotional level. I came to really, finally believe that diets don’t work and that trying to control or manipulate my body was no longer a goal for me. I was offered the opportunity to grieve the ways I had been taught in the past that fatness was revolting and deficient, to grieve the harm I had done to my own body through dieting and self-hatred, and, perhaps most difficult of all, to grieve and let go of the fantasy that one day, I would be thin.
“Beginning down the Health at Every Size path can trigger a grieving process, because there are a number of things that we once believed and hoped for that we must give up in order to truly make peace with our food and our bodies,” writes Meredith Noble, a fat liberation counselor and writer. “Because most of us have believed in the thin ideal and the power of dieting for decades, it’s only natural for some very strong emotions to be triggered when we realize we’ve been sold a lie.”
For what is the “beach body” if not a fantasy of the person you could become? In these summer weight-loss ads, not only are you suddenly thinner; you’re also magically freer, more confident, liberated, rolling in nothing but sun, sex, friends and good times. The fantasy these ads sell is one you can have — in your own body, without doing anything to change it. All we need to change is our minds.
Published as “Hot Fat Summer” in the July 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.