The body positivity movement entered social media in 2012, empowering women to embrace their bodies.
Analysis: The added pressure of body exposure, kids out of school and a rise in seasonal crime means summer isn’t all sunshine for women.
Summer! The best season. Especially for women. Time to panic because your beach body didn’t shape up as scheduled, to shave every day even though it gives you adult diaper rash, to text a friend so she knows your jogging route, to act as the primary juggler of your kids’ camp schedules because your husband can’t or won’t or tried last year and failed.
Summer! Longer days, warmer nights, barbecues (don’t you dare eat that hot dog), ice cream (that either) and sexism. So much sexism.
All year long, society sends women messages about how they should look and act, but summer can dial up the volume on gender differences. The idea that a woman’s worth lies in her beauty is more pronounced during a season when her body is more exposed. Social expectations that moms take on more childcare are especially true with the kids out of school. Research shows even rates of sexual assault are higher in summer than fall or winter.
“These are perennial issues that are always at play,” said Abigail Saguy, a cultural sociologist of gender and a professor at UCLA. “But I think there are things about summer that make people experience them more strongly.”
The body police
Standards of beauty evolve, but in American culture there has always been a preference — often white, young, thin and able-bodied. Women are heavily influenced by this ideal, despite the fact that many of us can never achieve it. The pressure to conform is even more acute in the summer, when warmer weather leads to more exposure, cueing the multi-billion dollar beauty industry that it’s time to sell every woman products for her not-good-enough body.
Summer can trigger those struggling with eating disorders or body image issues.
Dawn Delgado, national director of operations at the Center for Discovery, which treats patients with eating disorders, said her clinic is heading into its busiest season. May, June and July are when their outpatient programs are “booming.”
“What is already going on with our clients — whether trauma, depression or anxiety — there is additional pressure that swimsuit season is going to add,” she said.
While eating disorders can affect people of every sex, race and ethnicity, women are particularly vulnerable. In the U.S., 20 million women will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, twice as many as men, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.
Summer also leads many women to engage in a costly and painful war with their own body hair. Over the course of their lifetime, women will shave 7,718 times and spend $10,000 on related products, according to a survey from American Laser Centers.
While research shows men also suffer from body dissatisfaction (with gay men much more likely than heterosexual men to report feeling pressure to look attractive), body image dissatisfaction is still more prevalent among women than men.
“Women and girls are more likely to be seen as completely lacking in value if they don’t live up to these narrow expectations of beauty,” Saguy said.
Sociologists and psychologists point out the body positive movement, which exploded in recent years with the rise of social media platforms like Instagram, can help counter or expand beauty standards. But bucking them isn’t easy, even for big brands.
In April, Nike posted a photo on Instagram of model and musician Annahstasia Enuke with the tiniest tuft of armpit hair. While the photo garnered praise, many commenters called it “disgusting.”
The actual police
It’s not just about bikinis. Sexual objectification of women and girls is linked to sexual violence against them. That violence can happen at any time of year, but rates of rape and sexual assault are 9% and 10% lower in winter and fall, respectively, than summer months, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics. Rates of intimate partner violence are also higher in the summer compared to other seasons.
Warmer weather and more daylight hours mean more people are outside socializing, which some researchers say creates more opportunities for crime of all types.
While eight out of 10 rapes are committed by somebody known to the victim, the threat of strangers can still cause many women to feel unsafe participating in typical warm-weather activities alone, such as running, hiking or camping.
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Nearly 60% of women runners under 30 say they are harassed while running always, often, or sometimes, according to a Runner’s World survey. A recent Twitter thread detailed some of the “weapons” female runners carry with them — from pocket knives and safety pins to mace and hammers.
In Wild, her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed writes about the men she encountered on her journey, some of whom made her uncomfortable, others who made her afraid. Near the end of her story, she writes about two men in the woods who called her “pretty,” commented on her body and remarked more than once on how alone she was.
“I could hardly hear my own words for what felt like a great clanging in my head, which was the realization that my whole hike on the PCT could come to this,” she wrote. “That no matter how tough or brave I’d been, how comfortable I’d come to be with being alone, I’d also been lucky.”
A 2017 Outdoors study of female readers and those who identify as genderqueer found 53% of respondents said they’d been sexually harassed during outdoor experiences. Of those, 93% were catcalled, 56% were followed by someone, 18% were flashed, and 4% were attacked.
More than a third of respondents said when it comes to safety in outdoor activities, they are most concerned about “men” or “getting assaulted/harassed.”
The parenting police
The stress many women face in the summer extends beyond their own bodies and safety. With school out for the season, there are the kids to worry about, too.
Research shows that in most American households, mothers do the bulk of the childcare, even when they work full-time. More than half of two-parent households where both parents work say moms do more to manage the day to day of their kids’ lives, according to Pew.
Unlike many other Western countries, the US does not provide universal childcare, and while the K-12 public education system structures older kids’ time during the school year, there is no public equivalent during the summer months. This is especially difficult on low-income families, who rely on school not only for care, but for free breakfast and lunches. The limited number of summer programs for low-income children reduces their access to summer meals, according to a 2017 report from the Food Research & Action Center.
“For most families there is a complete lack of easy options in the summer,” said Jessica Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University whose research focuses on inequalities in family life. “Someone has to scramble to figure out who’s watching the kids, which camps they’re going to, who is going to shuttle them back and forth since camps don’t often have the same hours as the workday, and the burden of navigating all that mostly falls on women.”
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Even when it comes to vacation time, many moms find themselves on the downside of any good cop-bad cop scenario.
In social researcher Brené Brown’s Netflix special, she received shouts of encouragement from women in the audience when she imagined a scenario in which she was annoyed with her husband.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Steve. I forgot how vacation works. I’m in charge of breakfast. And lunch and dinner, and packing and unpacking, and laundry, and sunscreen, and towels and bug spray,” she said to laughter.
If a woman fails at any of these tasks, judgement is usually swift (we’ve all seen that mom assailed on Facebook for posting a picture of her kid with the slightest red tint).
What’s a woman to do?
For those thinking women can simply choose to ignore societal pressures, to play by their own rules, experts say they’re underestimating how powerful and pervasive cultural messages are. As Occidental College sociology professor Lisa Wade wrote in 2013:
“On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system. They are architects of their own lives. On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system. The system sets up the pros and cons, the rewards and punishments … No amount of wishing it were different will make it so. No individual choices change that reality.”
In other words, sexism is resilient. But women are, too.
“There is some sociological and anecdotal evidence that these pressures can get easier over time when you develop a stronger sense of self — when you don’t let self-worth be determined by others’ ideas of you,” Saguy said.
It’s also important to increase awareness of the sexist messages you’re receiving, Delgado said, whether they’re coming from social media or friends and family. It will help you to “broaden the scope of what’s beautiful.”
Women deserve to enjoy summer. To swim and lounge at the beach unabashedly, to wax if they want or go furry if they choose, to jog in their neighborhoods more focused on the breeze than on where a harasser is lurking, to savor precious, fleeting summers with their kids instead of single-handedly suffering through the tedium of scheduling them.
They deserve all of it. Too bad it’ll be many more summers before they get it.
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