Why Bikinis Are The Latest Tool In Public Health Activism

Sierra Sandison competing in Miss Idaho pageant’s swimsuit competition CREDIT: FACEBOOK
Sierra Sandison competing in Miss Idaho pageant’s swimsuit competition CREDIT: FACEBOOK

For some women, stepping into a swimsuit is a small act of protest.

For instance, the newly crowned Miss Idaho is making headlines for proudly displaying her medical history on her hip during her recent pageant competition. Sierra Sandison took the stage while wearing a visible insulin pump — even during the swimsuit portion — and posting a photo of herself online sparked somewhat of a revolution.

“Diabetics from all over the country have been asking to see me and my insulin pump on the #MissIdaho2014 stage,” Sandison wrote on her Facebook page when she posted the image of herself in the bikini. “Honestly, it is terrifying walking out on stage in a swimsuit, let alone attached to a medical device. My message to everyone, diabetic or not, is that we all have something that doesn’t ‘measure up’ to the beauty standards set by the media — and that is okay! It does not make you any less beautiful.”

Sandison initially struggled with her diagnoses of Type 1 diabetes, which requires multiple daily injections of insulin. On her personal blog, she writes that she initially didn’t use a pump to manage her diabetes. “I didn’t want people to see a weird-tubey-machine-thing attached to me all the time, and could not wrap my head around having a medical device on my body for the rest of my life,” she explains. But after learning about Miss Virginia Nicole Johnson, who was crowned Miss America in 1999 while wearing an insulin pump on her hip, Sandison changed her mind.

After competing with her insulin pump on full display, Sandison encouraged other people to submit their own photos with their medical devices using the hashtag #showmeyourpump. Since then, thousands of people have joined in, and people from across the country are reaching out to the new Miss Idaho to tell her how she helped change their perspective.

“You changed my 11-year-old daughter’s summer!” one mother wrote on Facebook. “She’s been so self-conscious, but since she read about you and saw this photo, she cannot wait to wear a bathing suit tomorrow and show off her insulin [pump] and have me post a photo here!”

Sandison isn’t the first woman to inspire a national conversation with an image of herself in a bikini. Earlier this month, Bethany Townsend — who suffers from the inflammatory bowel condition Crohn’s disease — posted a photo of herself wearing a swimsuit that revealed her colostomy bags, which are pouches that collect her excrement because her body can’t effectively process waste. That photo inspired other people living with Crohn’s to post their own bikini-clad selfies revealing their colostomy bags under the hashtag #GetYourBellyOut. Although Townsend initially gave up on her dreams of being a model after she was diagnosed with Crohn’s, she’s now decided to start pursuing it again.

Townsend’s motivation behind posting the photo of herself was similar to Miss Idaho’s. “I’m just so glad that it’s brought about more awareness of Crohn’s disease and it’s made me feel so much more confident about the colostomy bags,” Townsend said after her photos went viral. “If I can inspire or help other people in my position to feel a little more comfortable in their own skin then I’m really happy.”

Swimsuits have historically been a flash point in the controversy over society’s unrealistic expectations for women’s bodies. Studies have found that women tend to feel the worst about their appearance when they’re shopping for bathing suits, and that type of low self-esteem leads some women to avoid beaches altogether. One study even found that women wearing swimsuits tend to under perform on math tests. “’Women are so preoccupied with how their bodies look that they use up their mental resources that they could spend on other things,’’ the lead researcher of that study explained.

Sandison’s and Townsend’s efforts to recast images of women in bikinis as positive and empowering doesn’t eliminate the societal pressure for women to attain some ideal of thinness. But they are a way to give voice to the millions of Americans living with chronic illnesses, which are sometimes referred to as “invisible illnesses” because they’re not always immediately apparent to outside observers. An estimated 26 million adults and children in the U.S. have diabetes, and about 1.4 million Americans currently have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

“It seems that insulin pumps and diabetes devices are now a symbol of community,” Sandison explained in an interview with NPR. “In the diabetes community, we use the visibility of our devices as a badge of courage and a connector. There is a pride in successfully managing the condition and surviving. One hundred years ago there were no survivors of Type 1 diabetes.”