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Letting the changes out at the beach

by Alex Clark

The Observer

I’ve just returned from two weeks on a beach in southern Europe, where a curious gender divide manifested itself. While the women of the party fought off an attack of melancholy because they were missing out on a domestic heatwave, any men in the vicinity scratched their heads.

“Why would you care what’s happening somewhere else?” they asked. “We’re here.” Why FOMOOH (Fear of Missing Out on Heat) isn’t an equal opportunity regret is indeed a mystery, but in the event it mattered not. A far greater liberation awaited us.

Even the most high-minded of readers will be aware of the seasonal phenomenon that triggers a creeping paranoia in many women and some men, resist it though they know they should. It involves some combination of the words “beach,” “body,” “bikini’ and “ready,” and is often accompanied by photographs, either of a preternaturally perfect quasi-human frolicking through the surf or, conversely, of someone all too obviously human, with their lumps, bumps and sundry other physical imperfections circled in red lest we should be in danger of failing to notice them. Impossible eating regimes may feature and, perhaps worst of all, pre-holiday “cheats.”

Avoid the former and never be tempted to try the latter; an artfully ruched T-shirt or cinched-in wide belt will never make you look two stone lighter. It may simply make you look like you are unable to dress yourself with even a modicum of taste.

You may think these flesh-hating features and sidebars of shame have nothing to do with you, but they are so culturally pervasive that I doubt anyone is entirely beyond their reach.

Wait a minute. I’m wrong. This might all be going on in the pages of magazines and the tortured synapses of holiday-makers, but it sure isn’t making it to the beach.

On the shores of northwestern Crete, an island admittedly unacquainted with the small portion, bodies refused to be confined, either by contemporary mores or, in fact, by their actual swimwear.

Every way you looked, breasts heaved and bottoms spread and — predictable joke ahoy — that was just the chaps. (Incidentally, if we were to elect a figurehead for the campaign for real body shapes on beaches, it would have to be the bronzed and mustachioed bloke in Speedos from the advert for Southern Comfort currently gracing our TV sets. I suspect that, while the semiotics of the ad suggest that we should scorn this brave fellow, we are all secretly attracted to him. Why? Do I really need to explain?)

In my Greek idyll, the tiniest of bikinis and the most imagination-sparing of budgie-smugglers battled heroically to preserve their wearers’ modesty and, more often than not, lost the fight; there appeared to be little call for that most buzz-killing of garments, the beach “cover-up,” unless it was to form a tablecloth for an impromptu seashore picnic (more bulging tummies). My beach buddies were, physically and metaphorically, letting it all hang out.

One afternoon, I watched two friends stroll in relaxed fashion along the water’s edge, both of them young women of unknown nationality. One was slender and the other a great deal larger. They wore matching bikinis. To the casual glance, it didn’t appear that they were discussing how to expunge carbs from their diet or the pick of the latest anti-cellulite creams; they looked too happy for that.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Answer: we don’t. We allow others to do it to us and we should stop. Here’s how: It’s not simply about using all beach-related propaganda to line the cat-litter tray, although that’s a start; more crucially, it’s about refusing to believe in the mythical beach for which you are meant to be preparing yourself. It doesn’t exist.

Outside of some highly exclusive resorts, which may well have a pair of scales tucked beneath each lounger and a cosmetic surgeon on call, the beach-ready body is a chimera, destined only to trap us in a world of self-hatred and body fascism (and to sell magazines). But luckily there is another way: in the free world, you are more likely to find sweaty, wobbling bodies blissed out on ice cream and sexual abandon than uptight fitness freaks with washboard stomachs and six-packs.

Perhaps the physical laissez-faire that I witnessed occurs particularly when people have real things to worry about.

In Crete, we discovered that it was almost impossible to pay for goods and services with anything other than hard cash; a credit card was greeted with blank and unwelcoming stares.

In a butcher’s shop, I found myself looking for the odd change to settle the bill with the right money; the man behind the counter waved my coins away.

“Thirty cents won’t save me,” he laughed. “You or the shop?” I asked. “Me, the shop, Greece,” came the reply.

The one thing that remains in plentiful supply is food itself and the Cretans, famed for their hospitality, seem unwilling to allow hard times to curb the pleasure they take in satisfying their appetites. Lest this all seem like an excuse to fall greedily on another plate of calamari or a third flagon of retsina, while doing little more to burn off the calories than reclining on an air mattress or leafing through a paperback, here is another thing to consider.

Also among my holiday companions was a small girl, enjoying perhaps the first experience of abroad that she will actually remember and particularly keen to launch herself into the waves at every opportunity. Her unfettered and unself-conscious enjoyment in her own physicality, in the rays of the sun and the warmth of the sea, was a delight to behold.

The thought that she might one day cringe at the sight of her own body, to measure it against an oppressive and entirely arbitrary standard and find it wanting, makes me want to rip up every image of so-called poolside perfection into a million tiny shreds.

Alex Clark is a freelance journalist living in London. © 2013 Guardian News & Media