At any given time, you can find the longest queues in the world in one of two places; a newly opened attraction at a theme park, and in your local post office (especially if you’re in a hurry). I remain convinced that there is a post office algorithm which is along the lines of Q+2 = S-1. That is, for every two people who join the queue, one staff member goes on a break. But that’s another day’s diatribe. The only way to survive this endurance is to find something to pass the time, which in Ireland is usually discussing the weather with the person immediately in front or behind you, or eavesdropping. I flit fickly between the two, but the latter is always more enjoyable (and handy if there’s a column to be written). All of life happens in the post office queue; I have overheard conversations - diverse and personal - from childbirth to infidelity, from shameless gossip, scaremongering, not-so-thinly-veiled racism and house prices to rants about the government. All at a volume that would be more appropriate in the privacy of one’s own kitchen, as if the post office queue shared the Seal of the Confessional. But last week’s confab between two women, who must have been in their eighties, has trumped most others. “So are you beach ready Eithne?” one asked smiling. “I was born beach ready Mary!” laughed the other. Not a word of a lie (bar the names, which I’ve changed to protect the identity of these octogenarian beach babes). The women continued as the queue crept slowly forward; “The only time I ever wore a two piece was on my honeymoon in Gorey and I’d knitted it myself, only to find out the hard way that knitted swimwear and water don’t mix. It was around my ankles in seconds. Himself was delighted though!”, and the two burst into peals of laughter.
Yes, it seems even pensioners can’t avoid the perennial onslaught of the bikini body ads, foods, campaigns and headlines. It usually kicks off mid-May, reaching fever pitch about four weeks later, after which time I can only presume if you’re not beach ready, you’re written off until next year. Around this time last year there was a rare backlash that went viral. A company selling protein supplements ran a billboard campaign, showing a gorgeous young woman in a bikini, bearing the slogan “Are you beach body ready?”. I walked past the ad several times in the London Underground, but being nearly eight months pregnant at the time, I didn’t give it a second glance (the only thing that would have fitted me on the beach last year was a windbreaker). The company was inundated with aggressive complaints and even death threats, an online petition accumulated so many signatures that a protest march was galvanised, and the Advertising Standards Authority had no choice but to investigate. The company was eventually cleared, but I wondered did it mark a turning point in how we want to see women represented in advertising? Because the ad didn’t strike me as much different, or any more or less offensive than the myriad other ads aimed at reminding women if they don’t look good in a bikini, they have pretty much failed at life. But I don’t think it did, because this year, the same old slew of ads is back.
But of course, it all depends on your definition of ‘looking good’. Visit any beach in any country on any sunny summer’s day and you will see every possible shape and size of man, woman and child in their beachwear (and dogs – they have togs for dogs now, and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a Labrador in Speedos). At the risk of sounding like some motivational life coach, the ones who look ‘good’ tend to be the ones who are laughing, swimming, building sandcastles with the kids and generally looking like they’re enjoying life. I may be wrong here, but how you look in your swimwear shouldn’t be in any way proportionate to your level of happiness. I realise that’s oversimplifying years of being told that’s not the case, but ultimately the choice is ours.
But the most important and oft ignored fact about this annual attack on our bodies, is that advertisers should be modifying these ads for an Irish audience. We get so little sunshine in this country, that when great weather does appear, we don’t give a rashers how blue our legs are or how undulating our tummies. If we had fair warning about when the good drying days might hit, we could try and sort out our bikini bodies in time, but that’s not how Irish weather works. We might only have a few hours’ notice that it’s going to be a “Brittas Day” on a random Wednesday, so our main concern is not how we’ll look in the emergency threadbare togs we’ve dug out, but how to put on the right “I’m too sick to come in today” voice to our bosses.
Yes, they can bombard us with images of how beach ready is supposed to look, but once the sun comes out, as Eithne said, we were born ready.
Originally published in the Irish Times, May 2016