It was no surprise to me to see a picture of Alexandra Shulman wearing a bikini. I’ve been on holiday with her, (we’re friends, neighbours and I worked for her at Vogue magazine for four years) so I know she’s a two-piecer on the beach. Her philosophy is that bikinis look fabulous on a tiny fraction of the female populace - namely teens and models — but that shouldn’t stop anyone else from wearing one if they want to. Alex thinks they feel lovely, the very essence of summer, and as she told the Sunday Times, she planned to wear them until she died.
Why did that make page 3 of a huge-selling newspaper and the opinion columns of all the rest? Alex had Instagram-ed a selfie of her bikini clad body, in advance of a boat trip on her Greek island holiday. The world of social media, then the more traditional type, went crazy. It wasn’t just that she was the former editor of Vogue, letting her hair down in public —- but she was 59 and as “imperfect” as any woman is by that stage.
As it happened, while all this was going on, I was on holiday with my husband in Croatia. For the first time in 20 years we were vacationing together, no children, no friends, just us. It was great! Island hopping down the Dalmatian coast took us to a variety of beaches, short and rocky, long and sandy, all fringed with crystal clear blue water.
But this is not a travel post. What was I wearing? Mostly my cerulean blue Heidi Klein one-piece, an expensive, elegant piece of swimwear engineering I invested in a couple of years ago and that I still believe is a great swimsuit. It holds my belly in (a bit), pushes my boobs up (a lot) and makes me feel beach-ready or whatever that pernicious advertising campaign promised.
I had also packed a rather ancient bikini - or rather a top of one and bottom of another - in a what the hell sort of way. I wore that too, but mostly on the more remote stretches, where “it didn’t matter”. On the final day we were biding our time on the city beach strip at Split, before an evening flight back to London. Beside a cafe, stretched out on pricey hired loungers were the gamut of sunning sisters. Young, old, fat, thin, sexy, not so much —- and not one of them in a one-piece.
It was a couple of 70-somethings showering off the salt water next to me that really swung my opinion. Brown and wrinkly, with soft bellies and sagging breasts, they were clearly having a wonderful, cooling time at the seaside. A constricting one-piece wasn’t going to fool anyone about the effects of time on their bodies; why would they even want that? They stood straight, laughed and chattered, moved with ease and grace, not as if they had something to hide. They were simply themselves.
I run welldoing.org, a website that matches people with the therapists most suited to them. Women are the major users, and the majority are young. We often post pieces about body confidence —- or rather the lack of body confidence. Therapists and psychologists are noticing the increasingly impossible standards by which so many women are judging themselves.
We recently ran a post by Renee Engeln, professor of psychology at Northwestern University on exactly that subject: “The body shame so many women wrestle with isn’t about vanity. It’s important that we not brush it off or dismiss it. Body shame is linked with all sorts of nasty psychological outcomes, including eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. And while many seem to think that shaming women’s bodies is a way to encourage weight loss, the truth is that body shame makes it more difficult to take good care of your body.
“Body shame can trigger binge eating. It also makes you less likely to exercise and more reluctant to seek medical care when you need it. When you’re ashamed of your body, you’re less motivated to listen carefully to what your body needs and respond accordingly. Body shame can also weaken valuable social connections if it prompts you to avoid engaging with others.
How did we get to a place where so many women are feeling so much body shame?”
That is a longer, much more complex question. But the great thing about being 61 —- an advantage of my own age — is that I may finally be breaking free of it. Being older your body adjusts to the reduction of oestrogen. We all know it means our skin is drier, our sleep may be interrupted, and so on, but it also changes your emotional response. You care less about what other people think of you. Friends and family will usually still make the cut, but a crowd of people on a beach in a strange place? Why would that matter. You feel good in what you’re wearing, and that’s all that really matters to you. Now is your time to revel it!