The body positivity movement has crept into one of the least body-positive places: women’s swimwear advertising. Target, Aerie, and most recently ASOS have been praised for featuring models with stretch marks and all. What started as a grassroots movement by everyday people on places like Tumblr and Instagram, is now proving valuable to advertisers who, thanks to social media, are being held accountable by consumers more and more.
As more people outside of white, skinny, cisgender women are represented in swim ad campaigns, it’s easy to mistake the shift in marketing for a shift in the culture and business of swimwear. “Congrats to @ASOS for not airbrushing stretchmarks,” tweeted plus-size model Felicity Hayward. “We’re so on board,” raved Sophie Gallagher at HuffPost UK.
All the praise and good vibes about are enough to make you want to walk around in your bathing suit all day long. Until you realize that most bathing suits suck. Pinching, wedgies, completely exposed ass cheeks: they are struggles that plague people of all sizes, especially anyone above a size 10 (i.e. a lot of folks) making it so that even if a bathing suit looks good in the fitting room mirror, it’s a modern-day miracle to find one that feels good at the pool or the beach, too. One that you can move in, lay in, swim in, without constantly adjusting is hard to find. And putting on a bathing suit, especially for women and femmes, can be like putting on a wearable microscope that forces you to zoom in on your own self-consciousness and doubt.
Progressive bathing suit advertising means nothing if the body positivity brands are peddling is merely visual. And wearability is where the limits of body positivity campaigns are revealed. Take ASOS as an example. The models sporting its latest swimsuit collection do show off their stretch marks and cellulite. But as some people on social media have rightly pointed out, most of ASOS’s models are still thin, light-skinned, and otherwise blemish-free. The company, which has been called out for carrying a limited selection of sizes in the past, has extended its plus-size line, which is great. But overall, the swimwear collection seems good for little more than carefully modeling in front of a camera. All are very on-trend, meaning high-cut waists and cheeky briefs that quickly become uncomfortable for anyone with even the slightest suggestion of an ass. Aerie’s and Target’s collections are not any better.
A movement that makes you feel good about buying a product rather than good while wearing it is incomplete.
There are rare exceptions: blogger-turned-swimwear designer GabiFresh has received rave reviews for her Swimsuits For All collection. But things become even harder for anyone who is gender non-conforming or simply wants a less gendered option for the beach. There are companies out there — like Dapper Boi and Outplay — who provide gender-neutral bathing suit options. But with so few companies prioritizing fit and feel and some gender neutral options being unaffordable for many, not everyone has access to the type of swimwear that they want. I don’t know who is designing the majority of bathing suits on the market now, but I can’t help but assume those folks haven’t frolicked around on the beach in one of their wedgie-inducing designs.
The shift toward body positivity and away from retouching photos in fashion, especially in swimwear, is a good one. But a movement that makes you feel good about buying a product rather than good while wearing it is incomplete. Representation and body positivity shouldn’t be left up to the crew on a photoshoot alone. It has to begin with designers being thoughtful in the conception and execution of their garments.