Cleanse, scrub, wax, tweeze, spray, polish, preen? Stuff that ... it's time to reclaim the beach body

For many women, the bikini season brings a special type of torture. Fiona Sturges is hoping for rain...

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The Independent Online

It hasn't, it's true, been the finest of springs. Until recently, cool temperatures and overcast skies have meant that those who'd hoped to be peeling off the layers and revving up the barbecues have remained in long sleeves and wearing complexions straight from Dawn of the Dead.

Me? I'm delighted. Where others moan and gripe and daydream about hightailing it to the Mediterranean, I smile sympathetically and quietly pray for the chill to remain until September. That way I can shrug off the "advice" of advertisers and fashion editorials everywhere, and carry on wearing the clothes in which I feel happiest. I get to carry on being me.

For many women, this time of year brings a special type of torture, for the summer season is bikini season. It's also leg season, tanning season and wax-yourself-until-you're-raw season.

Every year, as the evenings get longer, we are supposed to subsist on lettuce leaves and direct our earnings towards making ourselves presentable for al-fresco dining, rooftop cocktails and pool parties. The fact that the majority of us don't know people who own pools is neither here nor there. Prepare ourselves we must.

"Here comes summer… Seven days to a flat stomach," a magazine trills in my local news-agent. "259 swimwear solutions," says another. Curiously, not one of these "solutions" involves ditching the swimwear and buying a kaftan and massive parasol instead.

None of this is good news for pale, beauty treatment-averse, happiest-in-jeans women like me. On the first day of sunshine, the world dictates that we turn a beautiful shade of butterscotch and bare as much skin as is decent.

Visit a chemist, as I did last weekend, and you'll be greeted by tanning aisles as long as the M4. There, sun-drenched, sand-flecked models gaze down from the walls, willing you to admire their honey-coloured hue as they seductively hug a palm tree.

"Discover your perfect way to sun-kissed skin," says one advert for self-tanning lotion and, for a second, I'm tempted. After all, my natural skin tone is white with a hint of blue. Or is that blue with a hint of white? Either way, on a bright day, my skin can cause snow-blindness.

But then I remember that I've tried this stuff repeatedly and it rarely ends well. I invariably end up with unsightly streaks and white patches, or just looking like the Ready Brek kid. Worse is the overpoweringly sweet yet pungent odour. For at least 24 hours after you've applied it, you smell like a cocktail that's been puked up.

The alternative to self-tanning is, of course, climbing into a pair of paper pants and being spraypainted like a new car. Look at the protagonists of any reality TV series and you realise there are plenty who favour this method. But the knowledge that I'll almost certainly end up looking like a cross between Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia and an apricot sundae makes this a definite no-no for me.

Of course, summer skin tone problems are small potatoes next to the issue of body hair. If it's not on your scalp, so the thinking goes, it needs to disappear. I've long been terrified of waxing since the trauma of having my underarms done three days before my wedding, causing them to swell and bleed. My hair follicles had effectively been turned into a series of tiny open wounds. And while my legs fared better – there were no lasting wounds – they nonetheless took on the appearance of skinned sausages.

That appointment ended with me and the beautician arguing about the tiny hairs on my toes. "You can't have toe hair on your wedding day," she insisted, waving her spatula menacingly. "STEP AWAY FROM THE TOES. I LIKE THEM AS THEY ARE!" I yelped, shortly before stomping out in a huff.

"You must suffer to be beautiful," my mother always said to me, and while I take issue with the "must" part, it seems she was right – physical pain is now part of the summer package. This can take in anything from plucking, bikini waxes and Brazilians to crash diets that leave you faint with hunger.

For some poor sods, it's only a short leap to more expensive and lasting procedures – Botox injections, chemical peels, boob jobs, tummy tucks, facelifts and "designer vaginas". All this to attain that boringly standard, yet highly impractical female archetype: the perma-tanned, smooth-skinned size eight. Or as Carrie Fisher's character put it in When Harry Met Sally: "Thin. Pretty. Big Tits. Your basic nightmare."

This archetype was recently brought home by a poster campaign for Protein World, a diet shakes and supplements company, which, next to a picture of a perky-breasted, mega-toned hottie, asked passing commuters: "Are You Beach Body Ready?" Rather gloriously, scores of women took to Twitter to express their disdain, the posters were defaced and an event was organised in Hyde Park to "take back the beach".

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Ashley Graham in a satirical swimsuitsforall advert in response to Protein World's controversial 'beach body ready' campaign

Still, according to the beauty and fashion industries, it's being beautiful on the beach that is the ultimate goal. I live in Brighton, a place that outsiders are prone to thinking shares the same climate as a Greek island, leading them to spill off the train at weekends clutching beach towels, sun hats and micro-bikinis. Last weekend saw the usual hordes of self-tan-slathered, miniskirted, bare-legged Londoners prostrating themselves on the shingle, stacks of Budweiser acting as a buffer against the breeze. In the summer months, you frequently find entrepreneurial types zigzagging the beach, selling straw hats and faux-ethnic necklaces to daytrippers. If they swapped the usual tat for pairs of tights, I'm pretty sure they would make a killing.

In recent years, the advertising industry's body inspectors have broadened their remit beyond the beach and into festivals. Time was when festival attire for both sexes was all about being sensible: waterproofs, boots, jumpers and lots of pockets for storing your drugs.

By contrast, today's "festival essentials" include floral garlands, saucy denim cut-offs, fashion wellies (none of your khaki-green here, ladies), and fetchingly fringed crop tops. The basic choice facing any female festival-goer, if fashion retailers are to be heeded, is to be cold but attractive, or be comfy and kill that crucial sexy festival vibe.

It's one of the tenets of contemporary feminism to ask ourselves: "Are the men also doing this?" to which the answer is: "Are you bloody kidding me? Of course they're not."

To my male friends, the advent of summer involves unearthing last year's wardrobe of loose-fitting shorts, flip-flops and short-sleeved shirts. Of a morning, the laid-back, devil-may-care, modern man can shower, brush his teeth, put on his clothes and… nothing. They are now free to leave the house. Imagine it! No taking a sander to his heels or razor to his calves or moisturiser to his knees and elbows. No prep at all. None.

But for the "beach-unready" woman, the message is loud and clear: cleanse, scrub, wax, tweeze, epilate, spray, polish, preen. Show off your body or cower in shame. Well, not me. You can keep your "swimwear solutions" and skin potions and count me out. I'll be the one sitting indoors, hatchet-faced, and willing it to rain.

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