Want more on this? Join author Kelsey Miller along with Nicolette Mason and Gabifresh at SXSW this weekend. This article was originally published on May 23, 2016.
Two years ago, I ran my first fatkini story on Refinery29. Inspired by icons like Gabifresh and Tess Holliday, I decided to try on a two-piece swimsuit and stand in front of a camera. We took the photos in a closed-door studio, with professional lighting and props, my makeup and hair styled into a glamorous armor. Still, I was terrified. Everyone at R29 was a little nervous. In 2014, showing a not-thin woman in a two-piece was still a risky move. More than that, it was risqué. Instagram and Facebook were removing photos of plus-size women in swimsuits, flagging them as indecent violations. When we published my story, the response reflected a similar distaste: Amid the cheers and high-fives were those who found the pictures abhorrent. Some even hurled abusive language, slurs, or threats; we deleted them and banned the users.
In the intervening years, so much has changed. Body positivity is no longer a niche concept. More and more brands pledge not to retouch models, Curvy Barbie has been born, and women like Gabifresh and Holliday have made the leap from internet fame to actual fame, complete with clothing lines and magazine covers. I'd even had the audacity to name my first book Big Girl. The world became a place where I could step outside the carefully controlled environment of a photo studio and wear a bikini on the beach — without a retinue of stylists and without Making A Statement. A body like mine in a swimsuit was, if not normalized, then normal-ish. It was allowed.
Last month, I took a trip to Florida with my friend Chrissy, with only two goals in mind:
2. Take some casual, unstyled photos of me in bikinis that would simultaneously prove how totally confident and secure I was and how far we'd come in the battle for inclusive body representation as a society.
Sure, goal number two wasn't super conducive to goal number one, but I'm even worse at relaxing than I am posing in swimwear. I handed my phone to my friend and jumped into the pool.
"Cute!" she cheered as I tried to swim photogenically, but not too photogenically.
"Can you see my stomach?"
"I mean, yeah?"
"Good! I just don't want too look like I'm hiding anything."
"Yeah, got it."
"That's really important. The point is just to be like, you know, swimming. Like myself."
"Right. So. Why don't you just swim?"
So, I swam like myself. I did somersaults like I usually do. Later, I lay on the beach like myself, or hung out by the pool like myself. I took pictures showing off my cute new swimsuits the way I would for any Instagrammable moment with a friend. I tried to be as much myself as possible — but it took effort. Each time, I had to shake a sudden stiffness from my shoulders, adjust the hand that instinctively moved to cover my middle, and lower the chin I was used to extending in order to prevent it from doubling. It turned out, just being myself on vacation was a lot harder than being primped and posed in a photo studio.
Still, the photos came out great, and back in New York, I gave myself kudos for looking through every single one of them without uttering a single "Blech." We really had come far, both me and the rest of the world. We weren't perfect, but we were trying, and that was worth celebrating. That's what this post would be, I decided: a celebration of being yourself, unretouched and somersaulting. Yes, we have further ground to cover — so much. But, god, just look at what we've done! Even five years ago, a woman of my size and shape in a bikini wouldn't have been a headline, because it would have been unheard of. Now, we've won the right to be mundane — to just go for a swim.
Two weeks ago, I snapped out of it. On May 9, I published another story, this one about fitness. The content made no overt mention of things like size acceptance, quitting dieting, or even body positivity — not because I don't believe in them, but just because they weren't the focus of this particular piece. It was really a pretty straightforward story about cultivating a healthy relationship with exercise, period. The primary difference between my story and any other fitness feature was the pictures. Instead of a fitness model, it was me at the gym: me jogging, doing yoga, wearing a sleeveless tank or a sports bra with a little midriff showing. All utterly mundane. Yet, instantly, the comments came flooding in, and none of them were about what I said or did, but how I looked while doing it:
"Why is this obese woman writing an article advising others on fitness?"
"This article makes me sad. Honestly, it's not about exercise. It's about what you put in your mouth!"
"I hope you die of a heart attack."
"We aren't being insensitive. We are being realistic. We want to help."
Sure, we've made progress. But only by inches. At this point, my appearance still outweighs my words or actions. That is the very definition of prejudice.
My image renders me, at best, an unhealthy idiot, or at worst, a dangerous threat to society, pushing my agenda (Which is what? Jogging? Wearing sports bras?) on a susceptible society. One Instagram commenter actually invoked the Illuminati when faced with my photo, saying I was part of a conspiracy to force citizens to "give up on themselves."
Looney Tunes like that, I can laugh at. The death wishes will get quickly deleted. It's the people who diagnose me via photo, who wring their hands over my upper arms, who "just want to help" me and everyone else who dares to act as if their body is acceptable for normal activities, like working out and swimming. Those concern trolls, those righteous people leaking their unconscious bias out into the zeitgeist like an odorless gas — they are the ones who make me want to cover up at the gym or the beach. Or maybe just stay home.
But they are also part of the reason I do the opposite. They remind me that, when I dare to read a novel on the beach with my navel exposed, it is an act of rebellion. It is mundane, and that very mundanity is what matters. When I present myself as unashamed, it stands in flat negation of their claims that I am damaged and should be hidden. "Why are you promoting this?!" they cry, to which I used to say: "I'm not promoting anything. I'm just being myself." But now, I am reminded that they are one and the same.
In presenting myself as equal to a thin person, I promote the fact that I am. By dressing for myself — not my "body type" — I promote self-acceptance (which is the opposite of "giving up on yourself"). By jogging on a treadmill, I prove that I am able. If you can only see my body and not what it is doing, then I have proven something about you, too. As long as I exist in a world that sees me as an aberration, I will be a promotion of sorts.
I don't wear a bikini to say that everyone should. I do so to say that everyone can — regardless of size, shape, ethnicity, gender, age, or ability. None of those things bar you from wearing whatever swimsuit you damn well please. You don't need to do so with apology or props. I wear a bikini because #fatkini is still categorized as NSFW, but the "bikini bridge" meme is not. I wear a bikini to shake off that stiffness in my shoulders, because I know it isn't mine. It's that of the people upset by my body and galled by my refusal to assuage their discomfort, just get out of the pool, and go home.
I wear a bikini because I like the way I look in it and because other people don't.
The somersaults, I do for me.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Special thanks this week to Chrissy Angliker. It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.