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Summer often means barbecue gatherings, beach days and long-awaited vacations. And often, we bring stress about body image along for the ride.
People often feel a pressure to look a certain way to have a “bikini body” or “summer body,” said Ally Duvall, senior program development lead at Equip, an online center for eating disorder treatment.
That stress can take away from the summer fun we are trying to have. Duvall shares how to leave the body image issues at home when packing for your summer getaway.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: What’s wrong with trying to have a “bikini body?”
Ally Duvall: Anytime somebody talks about how your body is supposed to look a certain way, it has the potential to be harmful because we are all individual people, and our bodies look so different.
Trying to have our body look a certain way is not something that a majority of people can do safely. It usually requires a lot of really harmful behaviors, like restriction, eating disorder behaviors, using certain medications or dieting tea. It’s also mentally harmful too because we spend so much time thinking about food or thinking about how our bodies should look.
There’s always that shame that comes up when we’re not able to achieve (that perfect body). The messaging that we’re getting is not actually realistic. And so when it can’t happen, we start to blame ourselves. We start to feel like we haven’t tried hard enough, which will just continue a shame spiral which often continues our behaviors and makes them even stronger.
There’s a reason that we talk about this in tandem with eating disorders — it can perpetuate some of the behaviors connected to eating disorders, which can push someone into developing one.
CNN: How do we get out from under the pressure to slim down for summer?
Duvall: A lot of it starts with awareness. It’s understanding these messages are out there, and there’s something that will intentionally or unintentionally push you to do different things.
It’s not our fault. We live in this world. There’s constant messaging, and it makes a lot of sense that we’re going to feel this pressure.
What we can start doing is challenging (the pressure to slim down) once we’re aware of it. That could be as simple as saying like, ‘OK, I hear this thought in my head, it is not my own thought. I don’t believe this. My body is already a summer body.”
It could be doing something like opposite action, which is a skill. We like to talk about of thinking about what your body or your brain is telling you to do — maybe you feel a lot of pressure to not wear your favorite pair of overalls or to not wear a swimsuit and to skip out on the beach activities altogether.
Opposite action would be doing those things even if you’re feeling distressed or kind of scared about doing them. Just by doing them you’re able to experience a little bit less pressure, you’re starting to feel like maybe it’s not the end of the world that I wear this pair of overalls, and that can be really supportive into working towards your best summer.
CNN: Packing for those summer trips might be triggering. How do you recommend dealing with that?
Duvall: Instead of trying to shift your body to fit into clothes, really try to instead find clothes that fit your body as it is now. That’s especially key on trips because there is a lot of pressure to have certain types of clothes, like nicer clothes or clothes that feel more tropical or just something that will make a splash on their Instagram page.
Maybe there’s a crop top that you really enjoy, but you’ve never wanted to wear it or felt comfortable wearing it on a vacation. Think about packing it and seeing if you want to wear it. Give yourself a chance to wear it around the hotel room or wherever you’re staying, getting used to it how it feels on your body, and then practice wearing it out to maybe just the pool and back. Taking those smaller steps with outfits you want to wear but are hesitant or fearful of wearing can help you start getting comfortable.
A lot of times we wait until we feel better to wear things that we want, when in reality by wearing them we can actually support ourselves and feel better at the same time.
CNN: Taking pictures can be a big part of capturing summer memories. How do we best enjoy those?
Duvall: Pictures are a huge piece of this. They can absolutely shift how you feel about an experience even if you felt good in that moment.
I like to think about the function of pictures. It’s to capture moments in time, and it’s usually moments that you really enjoyed. Focusing on how you felt in that moment with those people can be really helpful.
Maybe you didn’t feel good in the picture. It’s okay to remove a picture. It’s okay to delete it. It’s even okay to ask a friend to remove it for you if it’s feeling really tough for you.
Recognizing that pictures just take a moment of time can be a helpful (way to) pull away that pressure of having them look a certain way or “perfect.”
CNN: Can we uncouple summer and body stress?
Duvall: Having a relationship with your body — it’s messy, it’s going to be different over time. It’s also a journey because we’ve been told so much our entire life about how our bodies have to look a certain way and how they aren’t enough.
It makes sense that when we are faced with summer, we feel a lot of apprehension, or we are hyperfixating on how our body looks. When that is taking up too much time in our mind, we might want to reach out and talk to somebody because, as we know, a lot of these things can lead to eating disorders.
It’s also important to know that you have the ability to challenge and shift the narrative. It does take time and repetition, but you are not stuck with having to think about your body in a certain way because of the society we live in. That is something that can shift and change.