December is summer in the southern hemisphere and if your image of Australia is one of surf, sand and sunshine, this is the right time to see them all. The beach is a highly coveted destination and many will defy unpredictable weather patterns and unreliable meteorologists for a visit. Our shores are a symbol of our culture, and the beach is a place where people can unwind with no worries.
Recently I’ve realised something powerful about the experience of going to the beach.
We’re always bombarded by media images of tall, modelesque, blonde beach babes by the likes of Rip Curl, Billabong and Seafolly, but the reality of our beach bodies is a far cry from the standardised looks of these adverts.
Instead, the Australian beach is a place that celebrates all the beautiful body types of our society. With the removal of clothing that reminds us of our daily work and social duties, we can also remove a piece of our insecurities and worries. At the end, we stand in our bathing suits, perhaps a little exposed and vulnerable, but beautiful all the same.
This image has been particularly powerful for me. Growing up in an Asian culture, emphasis has always been placed on the way I am supposed to look. At family gatherings, the first thing Aunties and Uncles would comment was “You’re so big now,” or “You’ve gained weight.”
In many Asian cultures these things are not said out of spite, but rather out of concern. When they ask these questions, people can show that they care about you and have noticed the ways you have changed. Although the sentiments were lovely, the comments were sharp as knives for a teenager who knew less and felt more than I do now. Words are easy to stick into hearts and do more to one’s self-esteem, self-confidence and mental health than speakers may realise.
The expectation for me to become a petite-framed, small-faced, pale-skinned young lady was always unreachable. At 170 centimetres tall, with broad swimmer’s shoulders and sun-kissed skin, my body refused to conform to the ideal beauty standards of many Asian societies. Still, I always carried the weight of those words on my shoulders and strived for those looks. For a period I hated myself.
Which is why the Australian beach is a fascinating and empowering place for me. Old, young, skinny, chubby, tall or short, Australian beachgoers adopt a carefree attitude of self-acceptance and confidence as they lounge around in their bathers. They don’t care what you wear. They don’t give you a second look just because you dared to wear a bikini, baring a not-so-perfect abdomen. By not getting any attention, you feel your body is embraced. It’s a beautiful thing.
At beaches I have visited in Japan and South Korea, people wear long-sleeved rashers or t-shirts to avoid showing their bodies (and being exposed to the sun). In Okinawa, Japan, women in full makeup and chunky wedges strolled down the beaches only to dip an ankle into the water and replicate a photoshoot. At the beaches of Busan, Korea, my Australian friends stood out in their bikinis, while beach-going locals lined up in t-shirts and jeans to take pictures of them in all their bare-skinned glory.
Struggles with body image and self-confidence are certainly not restricted to Asian cultures and different cultures have different ways to enjoy beaches and appreciate their own skin. Not every Australian enjoys the sand and surf or is comfortable putting their body on display, either. However, in my experience and the experiences of many Asian Australians around me, the pressures of conforming to social beauty standards are especially high in Asian cultures.
What I want to deliver to other Asian women of my age is what I see on the Australian beaches. People who don’t care. The feeling of liberation. Knowing it’s ok to feel comfortable in your own body.
So the next time you’re debating (with your inner-Auntie) whether or not you should put on that daring bathing suit, just know that many others are in the same boat as you when it comes to self-confidence. Yes, even your friends who seem invincible. Everyone’s just out here on the beach for a good time, so bugger it and go with the waves! And remember that no one else cares as much about the way you look as you do, and that the people who love you, love you for who you are.
As RuPaul famously said, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else? Can I get an Amen?”