Saturday 25 November 2017

Katie Byrne: Making the shot - are all bikini photos manipulated to some degree?

Essena O'Neill/Instagram
Essena O'Neill/Instagram
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

On a dark and dreary evening last week, I walked into a department store and bought a red swimsuit. My rationale was two-fold: I needed some form of hope on the horizon, and there were significant reductions in the wind-up of the winter sales.

I'm still amazed that I made the journey from trying it on to the point of sale, though. This wasn't your average fitting room, you see.

No, this was one of those sadistic torture chambers that illuminate by way of ceiling downlights. Cellulite looks like lunar craters within these curtained confines. Stretch marks take on a phosphorescent glow. Varicose veins are newly discovered.

It didn't help that I was still wearing my runners along with a fetching pair of white socks (word to the wise: always remove your shoes when trying on swimwear).

The questions came next. Did I look like this in Marrakesh? Did I look like this at Burning Man? Is this the beginning of the end?

Mercifully, logic eventually emerged with my final question: who exactly am I comparing myself to?

Do we ever really see what a woman looks like in a bikini? Magazines use airbrushing; actresses employ body doubles and Victoria's Secret models are covered in layer upon layer of body make-up before they hit the runway.

Social media is no better. The green-juice brigade makes sure to erase their imperfections with "slimify" and "blemish fix" filters before they upload to Instagram.

Former lifestyle blogger, Essena O'Neill, a 19-year-old from Australia, denounced the fast-developing industry last year when she renamed her Instagram account "Social Media Is Not Real Life".

She left a few images on the site, but re-captioned them to expose how the business of lifestyle blogging is often "dishonest and contrived".

One of her Instagram shots showed her posing in a bikini. The new caption explained that she took over 100 shots in similar poses to make her "stomach look good".

"Would have hardly eaten that day," she continued. "Would have yelled at my little sister to keep taking them until I was somewhat proud."

One could argue that sensible people know they are suspending their disbelief when they look at photos of this nature. However, some of these bloggers are especially guileful. They have a knack for taking shots that look like they were captured on-the-fly when they were, in fact, carefully orchestrated.

Compounding the issue is the staged paparazzi industry - those crystal-clear images of bikinied celebrities that purport to have been taken without the subject's knowledge.

There's often a wave of these shoots in January. This is because the celebrity in question got a freebie winter sun holiday in a five-star hotel in return for a few 'candid' shots beside their pool. In other cases, they are in cahoots with a photo agency that pays them a flat fee and gives them a cut on sales.

Shoots of this variety are fairly easy to spot. Just look out for the reality-TV star doing a mermaid hair flick in the water as opposed to stuffing a Cornetto into her mouth; or the soap star staring wistfully into the surf with no apparent fear of getting whacked in the head by the father and son playing paddle ball.

Sometimes they are kneeling suggestively on the shoreline, complete with curly blowdry and false eyelashes, in a position that most yogis would find challenging.

And sometimes they actually practice yoga because, as we all know, the best way to remain incognito is to perform the standing bow posture on a public beach.

The preferred positions for body- commodification change with the times. These days, the tip-toe, full-body long shot from behind is a favourite for showcasing thigh-gap. A few years ago, there was a spate of all-fours-on-a sunbed shots. From behind, of course. (Apparently one has to look like a cat in lordosis in order to readjust their beach towel.)

I don't necessarily blame the celebrities for this carry-on. They are in the unfortunate predicament of being vaguely well-known, hence, they can hardly do a wee nixer in their local restaurant when the work dries up. Likewise, there are no sanctuaries for Celebrities Facing Extinction (just €5 a month could help these ex-Big Brother stars get a shellac).

Actually, I blame the extremity of a system that seems to only have two options: "incredible beach body" or "let herself go". To where exactly? The Caribbean?

This is largely why normal women are shamed into wearing sarongs and kaftans and clever little chiffon numbers when they go abroad. I've been on holidays with women who have avoided the big reveal for the entire two weeks thanks to Houdini-style manoeuvring.

It makes we wonder if the only honest picture we ever see of a woman in a bikini is our own reflection in the fitting room mirror.

And even then, those awful downlights have to be taken into consideration…

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