As feminine people with bodies that always manage to be under intense scrutiny for one reason or another, many of us are familiar with the stress associated with bathing suit season. Between backhanded compliments at the beach and generally negative remarks made by family or acquaintances, it can be hard to maintain a body positive attitude all summer long.
As someone who prioritizes self-love and believes all bodies are good bodies, I know you simply need a body with a bikini on it to have a "bikini body" or be "beach ready." I know that ideas regarding what clothes are "flattering" on what bodies are complete nonsense, that wearing a bikini doesn't make me more feminine than I feel comfortable with, and that there's nothing inherently bad about stretch marks or acne. However, there are many people who don't agree with me, and, as a result, gift me with compliments that I'm never entirely thrilled to receive.
It's sometimes difficult to know what to say in these situations, since odds are your friend or loved one has nothing but good intentions when uttering accidental backhanded compliments. However, if you feel the situation calls for it and are comfortable doing so, explaining how the comment in question is less than welcome might be helpful. Here are some backhanded compliments that many of us are sick of hearing at the beach, and some ways in which you could respond to them.
1. "You look like you've lost some weight!"
Personally, I refuse to accept "you look so skinny" or "it looks like you've lost some weight" as compliments. As someone who has struggled with body image issues for a long time, and who is aware of the fact that my weight has nothing to do with my health, beauty, or happiness, this kind of feedback is never welcomed. But because of my chronic illness, I go through periods of significant weight loss.
Despite people's well-intentioned comments about it, I feel strange when folks praise a symptom of my illness, just because it's made my body look closer to the socially ideal one. I've worked hard over the years to come to embrace my wiggly belly and jiggly thighs, and have given up unhealthy attempts at trying to lose weight. Comments like this one can be triggering for me, taking me back to a less secure version of myself who would have enjoyed such feedback.
Sometimes when others pay me this compliment, I inform them of the reason that I've lost weight, which oftentimes alerts them to the sensitivity of the subject. Other times, I simply answer, "Well, good thing I love myself at any weight." This should really make it clear to your friend how insignificant the number on the scale is, and hopefully even inspire them to try to adopt a similar attitude for their own bodies.
2. "Wow, your acne really clears up in the sun or salt water."
My acne tends to clear up considerably when I frequent the beach. I've been told by family members and the Internet that this could be due in part to all that Vitamin D and detoxifying saltwater. Don't get me wrong: I thrive in the sunshine and love bathing in therapeutic marine waves. But I hate when people bring attention to the natural changes my body goes through in a way that explicitly implies that my acne is not beautiful.
Since I've been through countless blemish treatment routines (to no avail), and have dealt with my fair share of bullying on the subject, learning to accept my "flawed" skin has been a long journey for me, and one that was crucial to undergo in order to love myself more fully.
Sometimes when I hear this one, I like to ask, "Does it? I hadn't noticed." Or I might reach towards my face and say, "Nope, the gang's still here," since my complexion is never entirely clear. This response helps me quickly dismiss the backhanded compliment as I focus on telling myself how beautiful I am — the last trace of pimples that always remain on my left cheek regardless of the season included.
3. "Damn, your boobs look huge in that top!"
As someone with larger breasts, I get this one a lot. Since I usually prefer to hide my chest, my friends are in for a shock come bathing suit season. Not only is this comment uncomfortable for the unnecessarily sexual way it can sometimes come off, but it feels hugely violating to my gender identity. As a non-binary person, gender is not so simple for me that I can embrace all parts of my body. I don't like showing off my breasts for the sole reason that they are almost always perceived as something feminine or sexual. But being strapped for cash sometimes limits my options to the bustier tops I bought years earlier. I don't want to know that my boobs look huge. In fact, I don't want to hear anything about them at all.
Personally, it's extremely difficult to respond to this one. I want to say something like, "Thanks, I love my breasts." This could subtly shut down their comment, and turn it into a positive message after your body positivity has been compromised. Usually, I don't say anything though. And that's OK too. Silence can be just as powerful.
4. "You can hardly even see your stretch marks."
I used to be very nervous about people seeing my stretch marks on the beach, and would go to great lengths to hide them. My mother, who has similar body hang-ups, even helped me better conceal these parts of myself by taking me shopping for bathing suit cover-ups and accessories. It took me a long time of seeing others' happy and free stretchies on the beach and years of self-work to help me own this part of myself. But there are always those who have the same hang-ups, or who are unintentionally keeping alive an insecurity that they know you used to have.
I might respond to someone telling me they can't see my stretch marks with, "Oh no! Here they are," only to then expose them lovingly. Or I might simply say, "But I love my stretch marks!" Again, this type of response is not only useful for yourself, but for reframing something like stretch marks into a positive as a very powerful wake-up call to your friend. Odds are, they've never heard anyone confidently proclaim their love for their lines. And who knows? Maybe it'll help them reconsider the way they look at their own.
5. "That high-waisted silhouette is very flattering on you."
All of my jeans, shorts, and bikini bottoms are high-waisted. What started as a body negative measure to cover my tummy became a full-on obsession with the silhouette. But my personal sartorial preference is constantly thought of as my covering up or flattening out a roll-filled tummy that many of my friends are aware I have. Yes, I look great in my high waisted bikinis. But throwing the term "flattering" at me automatically implies that my friend might think I need to cover up my belly to look attractive, while also perpetuating style rules and beauty expectations based on size.
I'll usually respond to this jokingly, immediately slouching so my belly rolls are clearly visible. Or I'll take my belly out of the bikini bottom, and squeeze it playfully. This sort of response usually elicits uncomfortable laughter from the person who delivered the compliment. But even if they don't get it — and even if they think you're a little crazy — at least you're being proactive in curbing any body-hating thoughts that could be triggering or painful for you.
6. "Man, you have, like, the perfect bikini body."
This is one of the more frustrating comments to me, since "the bikini body" is such a ridiculous and obsolete concept. I firmly believe that if you have a body and you're wearing a bikini, then you have a bikini body. The concept is so dead to me that it honestly doesn't have much potential for wounding my self-esteem. I usually respond to this one dismissively with an eye roll, asking, "But what's a bikini body anyway?" Of course, my friends usually mean well. But I just don't have the patience for this one.
7. "You look great in that bikini. I could never pull it off."
This one is probably the backhanded compliment I hear most often, from friends and even my own mother. It makes me feel awful when people compliment me at their own expense, especially since I care so deeply about humans who are learning to love their bodies. This comment doesn't directly hurt me, so I try to respond in a way that might be helpful for the person projecting their insecurities onto me, perhaps by saying, "I don't know what you mean by flattering, but I think this would look great on you, too. You can try it on anytime." Or even, "Thanks, we both look amazing!"
In these moments, I've also found it helpful to be candid about something I'm insecure about. Not in a Mean Girls-esque way, where you're tearing yourself down for solidarity. But by admitting something you are (or used to be) insecure about regarding your own body, you might help your friend put their own body image into perspective, considering they were just idolizing you as the human with a more perfect physique.
Sometimes both well-meaning people and trolls have the power to throw you off your game with their body negativity and backhanded compliments about your "bikini body." These moments can feel particularly vulnerable since our bodies are incredibly exposed when these comments are made at the beach. They can even turn a good body pos day into a time during which you'd rather stay covered up.
Be proactive against these situations, and respond in a way that keeps you in the moment of loving your beautiful self. It's cool to spread the word of radical self-love, but it's even cooler to respond to these comments in a way that will help you take care of yourself.
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Image: Marie Southard Ospina (1)