Why I will never regret the bikini selfie that caused a storm
Whoever would have thought a picture of a 59-year-old woman in a rather ordinary bikini would make newspaper headlines across the world — but that’s what happened five years ago when I posted a selfie on Instagram.
There I was in the bedroom of a friend’s home in Greece, grabbing a book and a towel, when I decided to take a quick snap. I was wearing a Boden two-piece and my hair was scrunched up.
I had no make-up on and the bedroom was untidy, but when I looked at myself I just thought how happy and relaxed I appeared. My caption was ‘Time for the boat trip’.
Five hours later we returned and my partner, David, yelled at me to come upstairs to the bedroom. I found him crouched on the floor, looking at his phone. ‘Sebastian [Shakespeare, then this paper’s Diarist] says your bikini picture is big news,’ he told me.
David had no idea that I’d taken the picture — and he doesn’t do Instagram — so he was somewhat flummoxed by this information.
Whoever would have thought a picture of a 59-year-old woman in a rather ordinary bikini, pictured, would make newspaper headlines across the world — but that’s what happened five years ago when I posted a selfie on Instagram
‘How strange,’ I thought, before checking my own phone to see if I could discover more. And indeed there was an email, again from the Mail asking me to write a piece about wearing a bikini.
But I was on holiday and didn’t want to do anything resembling work, so I said no.
It’s taken me until now — five years later — to put pen to paper.
Back then, I couldn’t think what anyone would find interesting about me and bikinis. Well, I was wrong about that.
Back then, I couldn’t think what anyone would find interesting about me and bikinis. Well, I was wrong about that. Pictured: Alexandra on holiday in Croatia last September
All the next day, emails and texts arrived from numerous publications asking me to write a response to what was being written on the subject.
The Instagram post had 8,233 likes, which for me was huge, and the Mail had a picture of me on the front page, linked to a story inside, while others were joining in the debate both on and off line.
It had become, in the words of the Sunday Times, the most talked about selfie of the summer.
To put this into context, the picture was not of any 59-year-old woman in a bikini, but a woman who had just left her 25-year job as Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, a magazine regarded as an authority on fashion, style and contemporary attitudes to the female body.
What I understand now, but didn’t at the time, was how people read all manner of messages into what you put on social media. Pictured: Alexandra now, who says she will nver stop wearing bikinis
What I understand now, but didn’t at the time, was how people read all manner of messages into what you put on social media.
I was relatively new to Instagram. We had been told to post as magazine editors and I had built up a substantial following, though nothing like as many as some of my peers who had got on board earlier.
I just thought it was a method of sharing something I found interesting with others: I had no idea, then, that there were people deliberately using it to create their ‘brand’. I didn’t realise what might be read into a post like mine.
Now that I’d left Vogue, my subject matter was by definition more personal as I no longer had the magazine to post about. I used my Instagram as a kind of newsletter, with book recommendations and ideas about clothes.
When I posted an unfiltered picture of myself on holiday in my slightly mumsy two-piece, with a dimpled stomach, messy hair and the odd mossie bite, I was not making a comment about body positivity (as was read into it), nor about how women should wear bikinis at any age. Pictured: Alexandra five years on
When I posted an unfiltered picture of myself on holiday in my slightly mumsy two-piece, with a dimpled stomach, messy hair and the odd mossie bite, I was not making a comment about body positivity (as was read into it), nor about how women should wear bikinis at any age.
I’d just thought it was a nice picture. I had no greater message than that.
It was, though, certainly a reflection of how I was feeling — which was in a state of euphoria at having left the magazine which for so long had been my life. Of having the opportunity to be my own person — rather than representing a famous brand — someone who was no longer responsible for many others.
Not that I hadn’t loved being there. It was exciting to be in charge of a magazine people paid attention to.
With that came praise and criticism. During my time at Vogue, I was at the epicentre of the debate about body shape; about whether pictures of very thin models were harmful.
Alexandra Shulman said that she tried to make some interventions during her time as editor at Vogue including asking for photos to be retouched less
I concluded that magazines such as Vogue did not cause eating disorders (a charge frequently levelled), but I did think that seeing incredibly thin models could be damaging to those who were already susceptible.
It was impossible for me alone to change the culture — one which also involved designers, photographers, model agents and fashion editors — but I made some interventions.
I wrote to the designers asking for a larger range of sample sizes to be made available for us to photograph, so that we could fit them on women sized differently to those who wore them on the catwalk.
I continually asked photographers to retouch less, so the pictures in Vogue would be a tad more realistic. I embraced larger models like Ashley Graham and Kate Upton when they came on the scene.
But it wasn’t only fashion that contributed to a culture celebrating skinniness. As a size 12 woman (hardly ginormous), I was amazed how often, during interviews, comments were made about how I wasn’t the size expected of a Vogue editor — even by male journalists and never, I notice, repeated about my successor Edward Enninful.
Alexandra Shulman said that her bikini selfie on Instagram was read differently by everyone who saw it, looking for hidden meanings
I was often asked about whether being my shape was difficult, given I worked in the fashion industry.
Really? Of course not.
Would I like to have been slimmer? Certainly. That extra 7 1b is always hanging around, albatross-like. But luckily it has never bothered me seriously; nor did I ever feel it was my job to look a certain way.
But at that moment, the moment of the famous snap, none of this mattered. All I was thinking about was the pure bliss of staying in a gorgeous house, cared for by others and not having to consider the question of what on earth I was going to do with the rest of my life.
Others saw the post differently. It has attracted 410 comments to date. Most are ridiculously complimentary; others along the lines of whether my ‘tenure at Vogue was a mask of my real values’.
One journalist wrote that the picture was in the tradition of Manet’s Olympia — which confused me as that painting was famous for the directness of a woman’s gaze as she lies naked on a bed. I wasn’t even looking straight ahead.
She said that comments online were ‘shrill’ with one saying ‘the conceited Alexandra Shulman’ in response to the picture
Amanda Platell wrote in these pages that I was posting a picture of my ‘wobbly bits’ as penance for having inflicted years of unrealistic expectations of beauty on women. Others claimed exposing myself thus was ‘brave’ or ‘heroic!
Various online comments were a bit shrill: ‘Ms Shulman definitely looks very real but lets leave it at that’; ‘the conceited Alexandra Shulman’; and ‘who gives a flying f what she wears till she croaks’ are a sample.
Such comments do say something about our society’s attitudes to exposing our bodies. So many women feel they need to measure up to some utterly random score. We can feel we are imperfect — as if perfection is a realistic expectation of anything.
Now, five years on from that afternoon, I am planning this summer’s holidays. And there will be bikinis, again.
Because, to me, the bikini is more than two pieces of fabric. It is, in a strange way, a pillar of my identity. Which perhaps makes some kind of sense of the Bikinigate furore.
I am somebody who always has, and always will, wear one. To abandon them would be like abandoning a piece of myself.
She said that bikinis represent indulgence and freedom to her and she will not stop wearing them as she gets older
In my mind, bikinis represent indulgence and freedom. They still carry with them the glamour of the earliest ones from the 1960s — worn by deeply tanned women scented with oily Ambre Solaire. They were sophisticated and fun. My best friend’s American mother bought her lots of them. They seemed far more appealing than my regulation Speedo. And they still do now.
Many women, I know, have never felt the same way as me. They simply don’t enjoy wearing bikinis. They dislike the feeling of exposure, whereas I loathe the limiting sausage casing of the one-piece. Where I have a sense of liberation in the near nudity, they feel vulnerable without the containment of a one-piece.
And, despite knowing the risk of skin cancer, I adore the tan lines. Who wants to come back from holiday with a big white torso and tanned limbs? Not me.
Of course now, at the age of 64, I feel a little differently about parading around in a bikini to how I did in my 20s, but even then I didn’t wear them because I thought I looked good in one.
I was never a Love Island babe and that was never the point. The point was — and is — that I feel good in them.
For some people, thinking you look good goes hand-in-hand with feeling good — and there are occasions when I might agree with that. A big party, for instance, or an important meeting when you are using your appearance to make an impression.
But when it comes to that glorious sensation of the sun warming my stomach, I don’t care that a one-piece might be more flattering. Flattering says who? My wearing a bikini is all about me. It’s not about how other people think I look.
Which made the whole bikinigate furore even more extraordinary. My bikini habit is a private indulgence which became a public talking point. I was amused and amazed but never felt vulnerable in the scrutiny. I guess that years of being Editor-in-Chief of Vogue had made me immune to a running commentary on my appearance.
Certainly, I never, not for one instance, felt a victim of the now much talked about ‘body shaming’ — a term that seems to denote anything anyone says about another woman’s appearance. I just saw it as part of the territory.
Alexandra said that she still feels good in bikinis and that she found the furore surrounding the picture extraordinary as she became a public talking point
This year, though, will be the first I will be wearing a bikini post breast cancer surgery.
Last November, I had lumpectomy and have been fortunate enough to get away with only a couple of dark scars — one under my breast and another under my arm — as clearly visible souvenirs of the experience.
Undoubtedly my body has been changed by the hormone treatment that followed. I had to come off my HRT and I now have to take a daily pill that exacerbates the effect of menopause.
The differences aren’t dramatic but are enough for me to recognise them as unwelcome changes. My torso is a little thicker, my skin more dry, my muscle tone weaker.
For some women, probably many, this might be the moment to give up on the two-piece and go for one of the many swimsuits that suck you in and hold you up and generally act as PPE for the middle-aged body. But that’s not me.
Although I own a few swimsuits, I wear them on my rare dips in rivers or to do serious lengths of a pool.
For the lolling indulgence of a sun-baked holiday, though, I’m not prepared to give up on the bikini — even though shopping for them is a definition of hell.
I live by the rule that bikinis must be bought either on holiday or soon after you return home. There is little more discouraging than trying bikinis on a pallid, pre-holiday body that hasn’t felt the open air in months.
Buying online at least allows you to try them on at home, while specialist shops such as Maison SL, where I’ve bought several, are nicer options than the changing rooms of most department stores.
Bikinis are one of the great female divides. You either love them or you hate them. They’re more than a piece of clothing; they are a state of mind.
I am intending to be one of those elderly women you see in warm counties — Italy, Greece, Portugal, Spain — who stroll along the tide line in bikinis, unbothered that their bodies show their age.
Or who tread water in the deep end of the pool, gossiping with their friends in their garish floral swimming caps, then sprawl bikini-clad on their loungers surrounded by grandchildren.
Such women are the best definition of ‘beach body ready’. They just feel good in themselves.
Will I post another bikini snap this summer? Who knows. I have over recent years — it’s just that now, blissfully, no one notices.