I was having lunch with a girlfriend from out of town, talking between bites of food at an outdoor table in Miami Beach's Sunset Harbour neighborhood, when a group of three women walked past our table. They were young and tan, all beachy waves and sideboob, looking flawless.
"That's why I could never live here," my friend said, tilting her head their way. "I couldn't handle feeling so ugly all the time."
It wasn't the first time I'd heard that sentiment, the idea that the perfect bodies strutting around South Beach are too intimidating for anyone with an average build to handle long-term. Nearly every one of my visiting female friends, and several male ones, has admitted to feeling more self-conscious than usual when they come to town. When I lived in South Beach, some even asked me how I survived as an average-looking woman: Was I paranoid about what I ate? Did I spend hours at the gym? Was I gifted with supernaturally high self-confidence? Was I partially blind?
If visiting South Beach on an average day makes you feel like you're the only un-Photoshopped schlub in a glossy magazine come to life, well, it's about to get worse. Miami Swim Week begins today, adding an extra helping of models and fashionistas to the usual mix of beautiful people on the beach. For five days straight, they'll strut around in bikinis, showing off their hard-won bodies like it's their job (because it is their actual job). If you, like me and my lunch date and most people on the planet, have a habit of comparing your body to those of the people around you, their mere existence in your field of vision will make you feel irreparably fug.
If this were an essay about learning to love your body at any size, this is the part where I'd tell you that real beauty comes from within. I'd point out that the beauty standards you strive to achieve are fantasies airbrushed into your mind by ad salesmen and that all bodies are "bikini bodies." I'd probably drop a few clichés like "confidence is sexy" and "real women have curves."
But I'm not here to tell you to love your body. I'm here to tell you that you can't. No, really.
These are the facts: 91 percent of U.S. women have tried to control their weight by dieting. Sixty-five percent of U.S. teens are afraid of gaining weight. Ten million women in the U.S. struggle with eating disorders. Statistic after statistic confirms that being female in America means feeling insecure, to some degree, about your size. Companies such as Dove, with its "Campaign for Real Beauty," and Aerie, with its Photoshop-free ads, would have you believe these tragic numbers are due to a lack of self-appreciation on the part of women worldwide. If only these poor souls had realized how beautiful they truly are! Why didn't anyone tell them?
The reason is that most women are not beautiful — not as the word has come to be understood by the fashion industry and society in general. When most people close their eyes and imagine a beautiful woman, this is what they see: a skinny, young, white woman with a straight, shiny mane and not a trace of body hair. Are there successful models who defy these standards? Sure. But a glance at any mainstream runway — even the runways of Miami Swim Week, which skew curvier and more racially diverse than most — proves they're the exception to the rule. So unless you're lily-white, stick thin, and freshly waxed, when Dove tells you that you're beautiful, Dove is lying — or at best, attempting an impossibly optimistic redefinition of the term.
And here's the thing: Women aren't stupid. We can tell the difference between what we see in the mirror and what we see strutting down the runway in bikinis. In a cultural climate so focused on how women look, it's unfair, and frankly insulting, to expect women to suddenly develop self-esteem because a soap company said so.
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Here is my answer to how I lived in South Beach without hating myself: I didn't, not at first. For the first few months, I felt out of place, like an impostor in plain sight. I never had a revelatory moment in which I realized I'm a perfect snowflake just the way I am. But when the initial shock and awe of South Beach wore off, the less perfection seemed to matter. As if adjusting to the glare of the sun, my eyes began to look past the pumped-up cleavage and flat stomachs and bikini lines with not an ingrown hair in sight. These are impressive feats of human physiology, don't get me wrong; I tried and failed for years to achieve each of them, and if you've succeeded where I have not, a hearty congrats to you. But when I ignored those features, all I saw were a bunch of strangers, people who had nothing to do with me.
It's kind of like South Beach itself: block after block of brightly painted buildings with eye-catching retro façades, a glam art deco feast for new eyes. But if you've ever hunted for an apartment in South Beach, you know those façades are selling lies. Sometimes the living spaces behind the entrance are 200-square-foot studios with a roach infestation and no refrigerator. Every once in a while, they're hiding a recent kitchen renovation or a sliver of a view of the beach. Either way, they're almost never what you first expect.
Lately, I've begun to believe that no bodies are capital-B Beautiful. There's no such thing. The beauty we think we see in others isn't real — we just haven't gotten close enough to notice the flaws. And evaluating your own body from the inside out makes finding beauty nearly impossible.
Perhaps the best we can do is to think of ourselves as South Beach apartment buildings: as shelter, a tool for survival. As a place to call home, filled with surprises and disappointments. As an open space, waiting to be filled — and all of it hidden behind a pretty, but irrelevant, façade.